Dell, Starbucks, and the marketplace of ideas

Just as I was researching a column for the Guardian on Starbucks’ MyStarbucksIdea and Dell’s IdeaStorm — both of which use Salesforce.com’s Ideas platform — I got an email from Business Week asking me to write about Starbucks. So here’s a twofer: my Guardian column about this new platform for customers to share ideas (and my wish that it would come to government) and the Business Week story about Starbucks.

Here are some added quotes from my interviews.

Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce.com on the platform:

* On the genesis of Ideas: “We started using the technology ourselves to talk to our community about what they wanted from salesforce. We called the site ideas.salesforce.com, and we noticed right away that this was a powerful way for us to connect with our community and to make sure that we were delivering the right services and features at the right time. Our product managers have to deliver highly-ranked features and work with Ideas if they are going to succeed in our company. It’s like a live focus group that never closes. I love it and look at it all the time. After using it for a while, we decided this had to be part of our portfolio, so we acquired the assets of the company that built it (called Crispy News), and the employees work at salesforce now.”

* On whether this is really new. “I believe that these days, the rapid communication that is enabled by wikis, blogs, Twitter, YouTube and you name it ensures that no matter what kind of company you are, your customers are having a conversation about your products and practices. The question that every company has to ask is: ‘Do I want to be part of this conversation? Do I want to learn from it? Am I willing to innovate on the basis of it?’ If you harness the power of this community, you will benefit. If you turn your back on it, you get further and further out of touch while competitors flourish. So yes, I think this is a new kind of communication for a new age of customer engagement.

The dead-end suggestion box and the auto reply are symbols of corporate indifference and are no longer tolerated. Customers expect a higher level of responsiveness now, and they will go where they find it. We learned this when we were pioneering Software as a Service. We had to stay connected with our customers or they would not continue their subscriptions. We needed to hear their ideas, or we would miss out on their creativity. And most important, they needed to talk to each other. Dell and Starbucks are pioneers in understanding this.

* On response to Dell’s IdeaStorm: “…But the response was mind-blowing. To be honest, Michael and I were both surprised at both the volume and the content. It was absolutely fascinating to watch, and for Dell, it has opened a new chapter for a terrific brand. Michael was kind enough to share his experience with Howard Schultz at Starbucks, and then we helped them build mystarbucksidea.com

* What about government starting ideastorms? “That is simply a killer idea. We are in an election year of course, and I would like to see both parties use technology to better connect with the electorate. Salesforce Ideas is democracy, as the saying goes, red in tooth and claw. But you have to invest in a conversation–it’s not going to work unless there’s a real back-and-forth.”

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From Chris Bruzzo, CTO and CIO of Starbucks and the leader of the MyStarbucksIdea project:

* On customers’ relationship with Starbucks: “Anybody who works for Starbucks… it’s this universal experence that people open up this to-do list that’s in their head. THey have very specific, detailed ideas. That’s a phenomenon. All these ingredients were in place. Howard [Schultz, the returning CEO] said to me we have to reconnect with customers and drive our company, Starbucks, as an entity to having a ‘seeing culture.’”

* On this platform: “Our goals were to collect ideas and to understand which ideas have the most momentum and passion in our customer base
But it was also to open up a dialogue with customers and build up this muscle inside our company in having a give-and-take conversation with our customers. As compelling as the ideas themselves are, it’s almost as compelling to us from an objective standpoint to be able to have this kind of running dialogue with our customers: to close that loop in an authentic way and show the commitment on the part of Starbucks to responding to what we’ve heard, which is about putting those ideas in action or building those ideas together with customers and coming to a new place.”

* On integrating it with the company: “We were not going to simply have this be an opportunity for customers to share perspectives. We were truly going to adopt it into our business process — into product development and experience development and store design. In order to do that, I thought it was critically important to have real experts form the teams that were building our experience selected on the basis of their characteristic and trained to not only have the conversation but the advocacy for what customers were saying via this new channel. So that literally customers would have a seat at the table when product decisons are being made. They have champions inside the company that are advocating for that.”

* They launched it that the annual meeting, where 6,000 people showed up and started sharing their ideas. There’s still some debate whether people should be able to vote down, as well as up, the ideas. For now, Bruzzo says, “it’s a happy place.”

* After I saw one of the “idea partners” say there were things Starbucks was working on in secret related to the Starbucks card, I pushed Bruzzo on really being open. He said: “Onee of the things we have to worry about is IP and competitiveness. We will invest significantly to make enhancements to the Starbucks card platform, for example. We want a head start.” But he acknowledged the issue. “This is an evolution. The community is evolving and so is Starbucks. We’re going to have to rethink when we would disclose broadly about a particular strategy because we have a vested community. There are advantages to having that kind of transparency because it creates more engagement… and we actually get to iterate on our solutions while we’re building them. What we do wit the Starbucks card is likely to be a different process than it would have been without this community. I think it is changing and evolving our views of confidentiality and competitiveness.”

* Surprises? “That coffee classes perked up as much as it did. That shows a level of interest in coffee expertise that some of us were surprised at.”

* What about ideas that don’t work? Some customers are pushing for separate lines for brewed coffee (that is, faster lines without all the froo-froos). “The idea partner is in there saying we actually tried this here and there and these are some of the things we ran into. What do you guys think of that… If it fails our customers who are on MyStarbucksIdea ought to participate in being accountable for it.”

* What’s next? RSS and the ability to track an idea’s progress.

* Advice to other companies: “Don’t underinvest in adopting it into your business process. Take it seriously. See it as an important part of how you run your business…. Go for it. The perfect is the enemy of the good. Don’t attempt to perfect it. Learn. Iterate. Your community is incredibly forgiving actually if you show a real interest to listen and respond.”

  • Guy Love

    Jeff, I remember your “Dell Hell” articles and can’t help but think they were instrumental in forcing Dell to respond with something like IdeaStorm. In the past, none of this would have happened without the megaphone of the net amplifying your customer problems with Dell. What is interesting is that corporations are very damage-control reactive but rarely proactive when it comes to changing their business practices. If Dell and Starbucks benefit from their new approach it will lead to “me-to” adoption by many other companies, which should enshrine the entire episode into a future MBA class.

  • http://brandautopsy.typepad.com/ john moore (from Brand Autopsy)

    Starbucks needs a Quick Win to win-over the community of its customers submitting ideas. The sooner SBUX can turn one of those ideas marked as “Under Review” and “Coming Soon” … the better. However, none of the ideas I’ve seen on the site could be implemented lickity-split.

    What worked awesomely well for Dell was they had two Quick Wins: (1) blogging in Chinese and (2) offering Linux on Dell computers. Some of the first ideas Dell received from customers were about blogging in Chinese and offering Linux. In quick fashion, Dell began blogging in Chinese a few weeks after the idea was submitted. And, Linux became an option for Dell customers about a month after the idea was first submitted.

    Starbucks doesn’t seem to have Quick Win ideas. And the community of customers will grow tired quickly if SBUX doesn’t implement one of their ideas soon.

    (NOTE: The “Splash Guard” sticks can’t be considered a Quick Win because this idea was set into motion months before the idea was submitted on MyStarbucksIdea.)

  • http://realitytvinfo.blogspot.com/2008/04/real-world-hollywood-2008.html Chad

    using a wealth of knowledge to build your business is great. Taking suggestions from everyone will only help you pinpoint what people want and need.

  • Anatole

    How to innovate what has been already tested. Starbucks way.

    Very recent big time Starbucks innovation: Pike place roast… “is not supposed to sit for more than 30 minutes” (Time, april 21st).

    From the Peet’s Coffee website (the inspiring company and the original coffee supplier for Starbucks back in the 70s): “We ensure that our coffee is brewed fresh every 30 minutes or less.” – and not just one roast, everything.

    Wow… how inspiring. I prefer Peet’s we’re lucky to have one in town.

  • http://www.thewriter.co.uk john simmons

    I read Jeff’s article in the Guardian (UK) yesterday. It’s interesting that the top idea coming from the Starbucks customers was for “conversation about the arts, current events etc”, the recreation of cafe society. For a number of years in the UK Starbucks partnered with the Royal Society of Arts on the ‘Coffeehouse Challenge’, the aim of which was to stimulate local debates based in Starbucks stores around the UK on issues that mattered locally and nationally. The RSA took the best of these ideas to a big debate at the Royal Albert Hall in London in 2004.

    I know something about this as I first put Starbucks in touch with the RSA, and then wrote about the Coffehouse Challenge in my book “My sister’s a barista” about the Starbucks brand. It was a good idea then, and it seems to be still a good idea now. But it shows how companies can often fail to pick up ideas and transfer them from one country to another.

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  • Lynne

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AlfszjapNb8
    A political cry from some smarty pants UW kids. Way to take a look past the Green color and view Starbucks without the coffee goggles

  • http://www.acceptsoftware.com James Gentes

    Here’s an example of a government site leveraging the wisdom of crowds to identify local issues – hopefully we’ll see this idea in the good ‘ol USA soon..

    http://www.fixmystreet.com/

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  • http://www.buckeye-weddings.com Jeff Greek

    Jeff,
    I am responding to an old note on your blog so we’ll see if you still get updates. Am currently reading What Would Google Do? and was struck (ouch) by the idea that to really speed up the growth of my start-up, I need to utilize the Ideas platform from Salesforce.com. Trouble is, I’ve invested big bucks (for me) in my .NET website http://www.buckeye-weddings.com powered by ZOOM CMS and can’t afford to invest much more in such a tool as Ideas. Are you aware of a open source tool that does a similar job?

    Thanks for your feedback and for your book. WWGD? is becoming my business start-up master plan guide.

    Jeff Greek
    Buckeye Weddings, Inc.
    jgreek@buckeye-weddings.com

    • http://www.buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

      I’d use free available tools to ask your customers what they want of you: blog commments, facebook, google+, twitter … wherever your customers are. That’s the key: finding them so you can simply have a collaborative conversation with them.

  • http://www.evly.com Eric from evly

    Hi Jeff, We loved what Starbucks was doing so much, we decided to let others do it as well – we created an app for Facebook fan page owners to be able to get “ideas” from their fans. Very similar to the way the Starbucks site works – people suggest ideas, they vote, and the organisation shows which ideas they implemented and which ideas inspired the change. We’ve created a free version as well, with a wizard – http://www.evly.com/products-ideas.htm – i’m very keen to hear what you think of it. (My email is above – looking forward to feedback). Best Eric

  • Bob Sanders

    Your customers will never have strategic ideas or vision…

    They will always hole you into what you currently do best. If you want something ground breaking its not going to come from your current user base or customers

  • blues loco

    “Well I never thought it would be me. Im a brand loyalty person, like American cars, but buy Sony tvs, and up to last year always bought Dells. I have a company with 7-12 employees and 12-16 computers and a server. Always told people to buy dells. Problems started 2 yrs ago wanted to replace my server, they totally never followed up on a potential 15k sale! Bought a different server. Put almost 4k down on a precision laptop M6600 with next day pro support since I don’t want down time on my personal computer. What a disappointment. Had resume and video card problems, they eventually sent a tech to replace the mother board. Problems again in about a year. took about 30 minutes and about 4-5 phone transfer to even get to pro support. THey note this time there was a known problem with compatibility with the AMD graphics, 2 tech days later, and another set of motherboard, processor and graphics card change, its off to the depot now. This time more delays as they investigate a “liquid spill” which apparently in two days of work the tech in my office and I saw no evidence of. TRiued to resolve this but after telling me this just today, they cant get the depot any communication till MOnday,

    Former extremely loyal Dell Customer, Buying an MSI tonight, whatever that is. Maybe I’ll be a future loyal MSI customer.”