All About Suggestions

19 Jul 2017
Carl Ottersen
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It seems a bit silly talking about suggestions, when we are all so familiar with them in everyday life, at home, and in the office, right?

But then, why is it that when we are thinking about business, we seem to forget all about them?

When was the last time you asked a customer for a suggestion, rather than an opinion? Or a customer offered you one (and I don’t mean a complaint)? Or indeed you made a suggestion about something to someone with whom you do business?

And yet, we all know the value of one when we see one, whether epigrammatic or epic: its creator intends to help us—and often does.

By their very nature, suggestions are thought out, reasoned, logical, positive, have intent and are actionable.  The maker is, by definition, inspired and engaged. Suggestions are imagination at work.

Suggestions arrive in many ways, and always will: through conversation and discussion, from proposals and submissions, by letter and email, from ‘free form’ responses to activities like polls, focus groups and surveys, and increasingly through social media as a message.

Now something new is being added to the mix. The Digital Age is giving consumers the power to influence product success, sales and the very products they buy. This is especially true of under-40s, who are happy to trade information, opinions and suggestions in exchange for something concrete, like recognition and rewards. This phenomenon is happening everywhere; for different reasons, perhaps, but global cultural preferences, even if distinct societally, are converging in the marketplace. Even locally focused businesses are influenced and impacted quite quickly by this.

I’m going to tell you the obvious, because I know you know it: getting a suggestion only makes you stronger. In business, the more times you hear people suggest the same thing, the more you know there is a clear demand to provide what they ask for. (Price and profit are different issues, but that’s for another article.) Having consumers tell you directly what they want is a “Holy Grail”; it’s one of the key marketing activities good companies invest in. After all, selling things that people want is always easier, quicker, and more profitable than selling them what you have. That’s Sales 101.

A suggestion is one of the clearest buying signals you can ever get: “If you did this for me, I would buy it.” But like two-faced gods, suggestions are also signals of shifting customer preferences, warning you to change or else ‘misfire.’ Either way: listen and act. The consequences for not responding are only bad.

Using Suggestions in Business

So, how can companies take advantage of the power of suggestions to build an even stronger, more loyal fan base?

By the simple, straightforward act of engaging with your audience, asking them for suggestions, letting them speak freely and rewarding them for their effort. Don’t take my word for it. The Customer Engagement Management (CEM) market, which nowadays includes all those customer-facing operations like call centers and software services like CRM providers, is set to grow from US$5 billion last year to over US$13 billion by 2021.

The main factors driving CEM are the effective use of always-cheaper technology that helps gain and retain customers; the need to engage customers with strong, positive experiences; and the profitable competitive differentiation that comes from getting it right. Just see what smartphones have done to the world in less than ten years.

More and more companies recognize the vital need to do this. Those that do tend to be more profitable than those who don’t. When asked, 90% of US CEOs said they are strengthening their customer engagement programs this year.

You really can engage with your audience if you want to. Frankly, there’s not much choice in the matter, if you want to grow your business beyond the audience you can personally deal with locally. If you have a (branded) digital presence, then you absolutely have to conceive of your potential globally, and without exception that means engaging with consumers and customers as broadly as you can to get insights into evolving preferences. Act quickly and effectively, encourage someone who wants to engage with you, and you can capture a customer for a lifetime.

The trick in getting this right is to keep conversations going with your audiences, and by that I mean real conversations where both your people and your audience are mutually engaged with deepening a relationship in which all see both value and benefit. This is not rocket science. It’s really nothing more than what a good corner shop owner does, expanded globally. It’s a back-to-roots people thing: technology is the very effective means to achieve it, not, as some companies persist in thinking, the substitute.

For example, instead of trying always to bend consumers’ preferences to what we want them to be (i.e., make them buy what we have got), give consumers a space where, in their own voices, they can tell you directly how they think you can increase their satisfaction. Make sure that as a business you have an ear to listen (not just hear), for otherwise you are just wasting time, effort, and money.

You should also recognize the value of suggestions with a good reward program that delivers something concrete; this can only strengthen the loyalty and interest the customer has when engaging with you. Even if suggestions aren’t immediately practicable, it is best to receive them instead of a thundering silence.

Socialized Suggestions

Suggestions come in all shapes and sizes, but, like it or not, right now the most popular arrive via email and the internet. If you have a ‘send us a message’ box on your website, a ‘comment box’ on your eCommerce platform, or branded pages on social media services like Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram or any of the others out there, then you know what I’m talking about. Let’s call them “socialized suggestions.”

The concept is great, as the format encourages positive, insightful thoughts, personally created by the consumer at the moment of inspiration, wherever they may be. Done well, the socialized suggestion arrives ’pre-structured,’ categorized, and in real time, not as fragments of narrative that have to be teased out of a stream of chatter and then stitched together—something which takes considerable time and effort. (That’s why media agencies and market research companies charge a lot of money.) Done brilliantly, socialized suggestions are shareable in social media and can be voted on by others, which gives you a clear sense of each one’s weight and market potential.

Since socialized suggestions arrive in real time, you can react swiftly to something that demands your attention, so reinforcing the interactive relationship with your audience. It can become part of your library of suggestions, from which, along with focus groups and surveys, you can build a pattern and a strategy. Plus, an organized source of customer data integrates effortlessly with your own CRM and Customer Experience Management (CEM) systems.

Socialized suggestions are a smart tool to have in your kit to gauge how consumer preferences are trending. There is enormous intrinsic value in consumer-contributed suggestions: they are contextual, data rich, relevant and directly related to intent. They help create a mutually rewarding, ongoing relationship with consumers that binds them closer to you so you can leverage the information that provide cost effectively.

From the consumer’s side, the value is something completely different. What they are after is to positively influence the purpose and value of the products and services they buy and use. They want to change the world. They have the power to do so, and they want to be recognized and rewarded, socially and economically, along the way. Don’t forget: You are someone’s consumer and customer too. Wouldn’t you like to be rewarded for contributing a thought-out, positive, and actionable suggestion?

As a company, a product owner, a brand manager, you need suggestions, you need to encourage your audience to provide them, and you need to publicly reward contributors for them. Who’s to say your competitor won’t?

Carl Ottersen

 Carl Ottersen

Suggested Reading
Gary Vaynerchuck – The Thank You Economy
Eric Von Hipple – https://evhippel.mit.edu/
Peter Drucker – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Drucker
Anindya Ghose – TAP

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