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When it comes to buying my wife a Christmas present, I’ve learned
a thing or two over the years. I used to ask straight out what she wanted, and
she’d reply with something like “surprise me” or “oh, I don’t really need
anything”. But the surprise – a rather distinctive-looking vase – failed to
delight and to this day lives in a cupboard under the sink. And the cookery
school experience day I bought her – something she really did need – didn’t

seem to go down too well, either.  So now every year from October onwards, I
start taking note of things she mentions in passing, like running low on her
favourite perfume or the boots she covets in the Sunday supplement. By buying
accordingly, I’m in her good books until at least February. 

There’s a striking similarity with companies looking to their
customers for sources of inspiration.
There’s no point creating something your market doesn’t want – ‘New
Coke’ is a classic example of a product that not only flopped but spawned
public outrage for tampering with a successful formula. New Product Development
teams often conduct focus groups or surveys to ask customers what they
want.  But a lot of the time, you don’t
get to the truth by asking explicitly.  Customers
might be perfectly happy with your existing offering, or may not even know what
they want when pressed.   

Social media can provide a rich seam of insight for innovation
by enabling you to listen in to authentic customer conversations.  You don’t get to script a questionnaire or
select a sample based on your own segmentation.
You have to be prepared for the unvarnished truth in the form of poor
reviews or customer complaints, as well as compliments and suggestions.  But necessity is the mother of invention:
where else will you get a more compelling business case to tweak your contact
centre staffing levels, or redesign the flimsy handle on your product so it
doesn’t snap off? 

Social isn’t just about lurking and eavesdropping to identify
pain points.  You can also actively
engage with your customers in the places they naturally hang out.  By responding intelligently to a rant on
Twitter – “@person I’m sorry to hear you’ve had a poor experience – is there
anything I can do to help?” you can diffuse the customer’s frustration,
validate their concern or criticism and work towards a resolution that could
benefit other customers.  By filtering
the news from the noise and interacting with customers, social becomes a new customer
service channel in itself. 

Mind you, I’ve noticed my wife has recently ‘liked’ several
exotic holiday companies on Facebook.  I
think she’s cottoned on to my strategy and may be trying to tell me something…

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