Automating the Suggestion Box


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Starbucks’ new My Starbucks Idea customer-community-let-us-hear-from-you idea shows how hard it is to do the social marketing thing and it also shows how corporations sometimes take good ideas and drain the life out of them and then present the morphed idea as the real thing.

A short diversion is in order. Customer experience follows the same trajectory. Back in the late 1990’s Jim Gilmore and Joe Pine published a ground-breaking book called “The Experience Economy” in which they argued that the next big idea in improving marketing was in staging experiences for customers. The idea sort of caught on at least to the point that their latest related book is titled, “Authenticity: What Customers Really Want”.

The pair argued persuasively for an evolutionary scale starting with commodities and ending with experiences in which the higher item on the scale was merely a customized version of the lower item. Thus a product was a commodity which had been customized. Following that line of reasoning a service is a customized product and an experience is a customized service.

So far so good, but when the corporate world got hold of the idea it became immediately apparent that customizing service was simply too expensive or too much bother or both. At that point a customer experience went from something that was actively staged by a company for a customer to a passive idea mediated by secondary metrics.
Everyone wanted to know if the customer experience was a good one, as defined by their metrics. As a result easy things got quantified and the hard stuff sometimes got ignored. Was the call answered on the first ring? Did you wait in queue for more than a minute? Did the agent use your first name? Did the clerk smile? A lot of it was pretty useless and even silly.

I interviewed Pine recently and asked him about his reaction to the uptake of the customer experience in the market, here’s what he said:
“One thing is really bothersome, and that is that so many folks who claim to have read The Experience Economy missed — or act and talk as if they missed — the main thesis: that…experiences are a distinct economic offering, as distinct from services as services are from goods. So many glom onto the language of “customer experience” or “experiential marketing” rather than truly design and stage experience output.

Now we’re at it again and if you didn’t know better you might think that Starbucks was way out front on the leading edge of a new marketing idea but I have to say, whoa horsey, not so fast.

The idea of capturing customer input is a good, even noble, one but it needs to be done with some science or it won’t be much good. Out of the thousands of people who use your product what slice of them participates in your community? Is it the same cranky people all the time? Your competitors? Do you know?

Setting up what amounts to an automated suggestion box leaves all these variables wide open and gives your marketers the impossible task of deriving meaning from what, pardon me, Shakespeare called “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

A few weeks back I wrote a piece Picking a Community Vendor about choosing a vendor who can help you set up a community. Today I would like to suggest that the secret of community success is that it must be active and it must be actively managed. Gathering random comments from customers might be useful and I won’t dismiss it, but if you are planning to use the input from a community to make decisions about how you manage and grow your business, you need much more than the feedback from a random group.

That means you should pick your community members — I didn’t say you should stuff the ballot box but you need to pick the members — so that you have a representative cross section of your customers. The data that comes from a cross section of your customer population will be more accurate (not perfect) and enable you to make reasonable extrapolations.

If you pick your members you also need to specifically pick what you ask. Open ended questions that solicit rants might make it seem like the vendor is really interested in community input but, again, it simply leads to chaos. The best questions are derived from lots of listening. When multiple customers express a similar thought you might be witnessing a pattern emerging but you need to test it further. Develop a question or two designed to get people to choose among a short list of possibilities, then find multiple ways to ask the same question.

In the end, the difference between a community that works and one that simply makes you look good is similar to staging experiences compared to worrying about the customer experience. The way that works requires active participation by the vendor while the cheap and easy route bastardizes the idea and only leads to confusion.

If we follow the cheap and easy route, in the not too distant future it is conceivable that communities will get a bad name because “everybody knows they don’t work”. Analysts will develop data that proves the fact and that will be that. We’ll go back to not listening to the customer because some genius might have even proved that communities are no better than dartboards and dartboards are way less expensive. I digress, but the thing that will be proven not to work will be the thing that couldn’t work.

So hats off to Starbucks for automating their suggestion box. Now, your coffee break is over, get back to work and develop a real community.

Denis Pombriant
Beagle Research Group, LLC
Denis Pombriant is a well-known thought leader in CRM and the founder and managing principal of the Beagle Research Group, LLC, a CRM market research firm and consultancy.


  1. Denis

    Another thought provoking post.

    Perhaps the single company to have mastered the whole suggestion thing is Toyota. It captures suggestions from customers and particularly, from employees, and implements the vast majority of them within a week. That’s impressive enough until you realise that Toyota has implemented over 20 MILLION suggestions in the past 40 years. That’s right, 20 million suggestions. And it was the individual employees who were responsible for implementing most of the suggestions. Each and every suggestion saved a little bit here, or improved the customer experience a little bit there, and contributed a little towards the top-line.

    This is what happens when you are never satisfied with your current performance. The overwhelming success of Toyota is testament to its obsession with continuuous improvement.

    Graham Hill
    Independent CRM Consultant
    Interim CRM Manager

  2. Denis, I take it that you think Starbucks should take a different approach to develop a “real” community. Perhaps you’re right. There are some great solutions for that in the market, and there’s definitely an art to community development, too.

    But still, what Starbucks is doing is better than corporate honchos trying to speculate on what consumers want. There are thousands of comments posted against ideas ( like:
    * punch card system
    * free wi-fi internet
    * VIP card
    * healthier high-protein breakfasts

    The site is hosted using, which I believe also powers Dell’s IdeaStorm (

    More could be done to make it a true community, but for global brands like Starbucks, I don’t see much downside to “automating the suggestion box.” Provided, of course, that Starbucks does something with the suggestions.

    Bob Thompson, CustomerThink Corp.
    Blog: Unconventional Wisdom


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