Many companies make use of crowdsourcing but few get it right. Asking customers to submit suggestions or requests is great, but it’s only part of the process of driving innovation and delivering what customers really want.

How can you tell which suggestions came from deep within your target market? How can you harvest information, create capabilities and provide the right internal incentives to make sure employees are delivering on the right outcomes?

There is a great example in a book I’m reading right now, Originals: How Non-conformists Move the World, by Adam Grant. The opening paragraphs draws a contrast between the TV show Seinfeld and the Segway – remember that personal transport device?

Grant asks why Seinfeld was wildly successful even though initially, when it screened to test audiences, they hated it. And why the Segway flopped despite major investors in Silicon Valley expecting it to be the next revolution in human transport.

The answer lies in whose opinion was sought on each. The people evaluating the Segway weren’t experts in the field of transportation. The first four episodes of Seinfeld were tested against real audiences, despite the prior poor feedback from test audiences – it became a smash hit. Receiving input from the right crowd is essential.

Listen to the right opinions

You need ideas and feedback from real users, rather than people who think they know what’s best. ‘Faux users’ will always have an opinion, but you have to temper their input. Using your social channels to carefully gather input – we helped CBA do this almost five years ago – can be a good engagement strategy, but rigor is required to ensure you're sourcing data from valid users.

At Salesforce we invite our customers to submit ideas, then we also allow everyone to vote on them, bringing the most valuable ideas to the top. Then there is an internal question: how do you create the right incentives so the people working on these innovations are driving the best possible outcomes?

Use the most valuable ideas

If the goal you set for a team is ‘getting ideas out to market’, and their success is measured in quantity, you’ll likely see everyone take the path of least resistance. This doesn’t prioritise the ideas that the market actually desires. Our product managers are incentivised to work on the top ideas, rather than looking down the list and choosing the easier ones.

To help drive results we gamify this process internally, with points earned by product managers for implementing customers’ ideas. The ideas highly desired by users are worth more points, and the winners are rewarded. This doesn’t just ensure the best ideas are used – it’s also a brilliant way of keeping our people engaged.

This isn’t a complicated process, but it is much more powerful than a simple suggestion box. We’re not just running with the ideas provided. Our core users vote the ideas into a prioritised list, then we incentivise our staff to implement the ideas that are most valuable to our users.

Usability: the final piece of the puzzle

Implementing things that customers ask for in a way that they find unusable is possibly worse than giving them nothing at all. Imagine a running shoe that provided perfect support, but was impossible to lace up correctly. How frustrating would that be?

For this reason, another part of our internal incentive system is to watch how well the new features are being used to measure whether they have been developed with sufficient customer empathy.

If you’re looking for that secret ‘something’ your customers will love, you don’t need to throw out the suggestion box – just make it step one in a rigorous process:

  1. Understand who your ‘true’ customers and potential users are.

  2. Engage them to give you ideas in a way that's transparent and easy.

  3. Find ways to understand, validate, and prioritise these ideas.  

  4. Incentivise your team to implement the highest priority ideas, according to your customers.

  5. Measure the success of each implementation, and tweak usability if you need to.

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