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Field Notes Listening to the User
Vivek Bhaskaran


For most medium to large businesses, information technology (IT) is usually defined as a cost center. This is evident every day, as IT teams are asked to justify their existence. With the current price restrictions due to the downturn in the economy, the role of IT in business decision making is being questioned at the most basic level.
Companies Using These Techniques
Here are some actual examples of how several companies are using collaboration, feedback, and suggestion sharing:
  1. ChoiceHotels IdeaScale: I was personally involved with the launch of the ChoiceHotels IdeaScale portal. ChoiceHotels had more than 60 new ideas posted in the first 24 hours following an e-mail invitation to 1,500 users. More than 400 users signed up to post, comment, or vote on ideas. The level of commenting and activity on the idea portal itself gives a clear indication of how much the users like the concept of an open-access feedback portal.
  2. MyStarbucksIdeas: MyStarbucksIdeas launched with great fanfare—President and CEO Howard Schultz published a press release, and Starbucks received a lot of attention simply because it was agreeing to listen to its customers.
  3. Ubuntu Brainstorm: Ubuntu is one of the most popular Linux distributions in the market today. Its development team uses a collaborative feedback portal to gauge new ideas and implement them.
As with all departments, businesses are asking how IT can do more with less. IT has the unique advantage of being tethered to the customers as well as to various business units within an organization. But if IT wants to remain relevant and operational, it needs to become a source of opportunity for businesses rather than simply a cost center. The big question is how do IT departments bring about this shift in how they are perceived?
One of the fundamental tenets of efficient communication is the feedback loop. No one operates in a vacuum. Feedback of some sort is necessary, whether it's anecdotal or in the form of standardized metrics. On a personal level, we have mentors, friends, and advisors who can tell us how we are doing. Companies, however, must conduct surveys in order to actually connect with clients, not only to tap into their collective intelligence but also to let customers know that their opinions are valued.
The first rule of sales is listening, not talking. Good salespeople have the ability to listen well and then offer solutions that match customers' needs. IT must follow that model and become a listening agent that reacts to the fundamental needs of customers and proposes innovative solutions that can affect the bottom line.
Listening systems thus form the back channel of what is called the innovation feedback loop. In the post dot-com world, the big concept that has emerged is known as "democratization." Blogs have democratized publishing—anyone with a computer can publish content. YouTube has democratized videos—anyone with a cell phone or a webcam can produce and upload videos.
Innovation is fairly common here. If we think we need to get to a point of perpetual innovation, we need to democratize IT. Let everyone participate in global asynchronous brainstorming sessions and collect feedback at every participatory point. Engage by listening.
One of the often under-appreciated aspects of feedback and of any listening system is its ability to engage the audience. Most people, when asked the right way and at an opportune time, are willing to give feedback. At a core human and social level, giving feedback validates your own importance. Studies have shown that the mere act of asking customers for their opinion doubles profitability (see the study published in Harvard Business Review "How Surveys Influence Customers" at rfgmkt.com/How_Surveys_Influence_Customers.pdf).
IT should engage with customers to provide a platform for listening to the various constituents they serve. IT is in a unique position to distill feedback and data from divergent sources and then propose innovative solutions.

Vivek Bhaskaran is the Founder and CEO of Survey Analytics. With the mission to democratize feedback, Survey Analytics owns and operates QuestionPro.com, IdeaScale.com, and MicroPoll.com.

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