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Taking it to the ... Web. Starbucks wants your ideas.

Listening to consumer feedback in a meaningful way is an art often lost on companies. In the increasingly online world we live in, Starbucks has found a way to reach out to their customers so that their feedback IS meaningful. MyStarbucksIdea.com is proving to be a popular portal that allows customers to tell Starbucks what they want. And Starbucks is listening.

Starbucks understands that consumers talk in a myriad of ways. And one of them is through feedback. Oh sure, they have had comment cards in their stores forever. Have you ever filled one out? Have you ever seen someone fill one out?

As a Starbucks consumer for many years, I actually DID fill out one of those cards once. I haven't got a clue if it was followed up and I never wrote another one.

But it seems that Starbucks really DOES care what I think. And they want my input on how they can provide better service.

Launched at the March 2008 board meeting, MyStarbucksIdea.com has been attracting quite a lot of attention from consumers. Want ice cubes made form coffee so that your cold drink isn't diluted? There are 7,660 others who also think that is a fine idea. Are you annoyed by that hole in the top of the lid that lets coffee slosh out? Over 10,000 other coffee consumers agree. And Starbucks has introduced reusable "splash sticks" in response.

Believing consumers should have a greater voice, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz took a page from Michael Dell's playbook. Dell's IdeaStorm.com has been instrumental in helping the company understand what its consumers want. And Dell is listening- the idea of enabling customers to purchase a computer running Linux instead of Windows is an idea that came through the IdeaStorm.com portal.

Both Starbucks and Dell are using the "Ideas" software platform from Salesforce.com. According to Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce.com, "It's like a focus group that never closes."

From Business Week:

Schultz intends to use Ideas to change his company-to instill what he calls "a seeing culture." Chris Bruzzo, Starbucks' chief technology officer, who oversees MyStarbucksIdea, adds: "It was also to open up a dialogue with customers and build up this muscle inside our company." He says Starbucks "stood on the shoulders" of Dell's experience-Dell himself shared his lessons with Schultz. The Starbucks chief added "idea partners"-48 specially trained employees who act as hosts of the discussion. Without them, Bruzzo argues, the conversation could intimidate newcomers. "These are the people at a dinner party who make sure everyone is having a good time."

The idea partners also act as advocates for customers' suggestions back at their departments, so that "customers would have a seat at the table when product decisions are being made," Bruzzo says. "To close that loop in an authentic way," he argues, the company must make a commitment to "building those ideas together with customers.... We're truly going to adopt it into our business process, into product development, experience development, and store design."

Idea partners also view the comments posted online as a laboratory. They push back on ideas, telling customers what has been tried and hasn't worked. For example, some customers want express lines for brewed coffee orders, as opposed to the half-caf, skinny, extra-foam pumpkin lattes that seem to take longer to order than to make or drink. But the idea partner said that hasn't worked because of the layout of Starbucks stores. "If it fails," says Bruzzo, "our customers who are on MyStarbucksIdea ought to participate in being accountable for it." Whether an idea is accepted or not, customers get only the satisfaction of participating; there are no payments or other tangible rewards.

According to users, MyStarbucksIdea.com has the feel of a social network. Ideas are proposed, voted on, and talked about. There are no profiles and no peer mail. All communication is through the portal itself. But it seems to be, not only working, but working well.

From the Associated Press:

Skeptics have panned MyStarbucksIdea.com, unveiled at the company's heavily attended annual meeting in mid-March, as an online suggestion box that's already grown stale. But the heavy traffic it's drawn and the message Starbucks is sending - that it's listening, and listening carefully - have impressed corporate marketing experts.

"Most brands do not put out a welcome mat for feedback," said Pete Blackshaw, executive vice president of strategic services for the market research firm Nielsen Online. "Generally feedback is viewed as a cost of doing business rather than an opportunity. Starbucks is saying this is an opportunity."

As a heavy coffee drinker, I am all for any way that I can communicate with my favorite coffee provider. But this also shows a shift in corporate thinking that can only be good. While some of the ideas proposed may not be workable, or not workable in the near future, all ideas are at least considered. And the collective group reading and responding to those ideas are able to refine them in a way that a focus group can't.

So what are your thoughts? Whether you drink Starbucks coffee or not, do you see a business case for opening a dialog with customers to incorporate their ideas? Would you be more or less inclined to do business with a company who does this? Or is the idea just a yawn?

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