Empower or lose power: A discussion on the age of democratic consumerism in modern business and politics
Getting feedback from your customers isn't enough anymore. Letting your staff have their say as a token gesture doesn't wash. Customers, employees, citizens don't just want to be heard, they want to be involved - or at least have the opportunity to be involved. And if you don't provide that opportunity they'll do it themselves – and make noise doing it. In this article, Chris Quigley proposes that it is time to say hello to the era of "democratic consumerism".
By Chris Quigley
In the last few years there's been a fundamental shift in power from the organisation to the individual; a power shift driven by technology and amplified by social media. The good news for organisations - whether you're business or government - is that this power shift is an opportunity rather than a threat.
The empowered consumer provides the opportunity to improve and innovate. The empowered consumer isn't interested in second-rate service, or products that are *good enough*- they want the best. The empowered consumer is there to keep an eye on your front-line staff. They're there feeding back on how your service and products perform. They're there coming up with new ideas on how to improve what you do - "Have you thought of using organic only ingredients?" "How about providing a discount for military personnel?" "What about providing open source software as standard on your new computers?" “Have you ever thought about providing patient passports in hospitals?”
The empowered consumer is also there to become a mouthpiece for your organisation - an advocate spreading the good word. On the flip-side they're also there to criticise you when you get things wrong.
Perhaps the scariest aspect of this new phenomenon of democratic consumerism is that all of this participation is done in public. It's done by people sharing their thoughts and experiences across blogs, Facebook and Twitter. The public nature of this is naturally quite a challenge for most organisations, however it's something that can't be stopped so the best option is embrace rather than ignore.
Companies who get it
Good examples of companies making the most of their empowered consumers aren't as numerous as they ought to be. Over in the US, Starbucks and Dell are the poster boys. Both run similar customer collaboration services – Dell with their “Ideastorm” and Starbuck’s with their “My Starbucks Idea” - where customers are invited to share their ideas on how to improve products and services. The key to the success of these online communities is that they’re not just talking shops, but effect real service change and product innovation.
To date, Dell’s Ideastorm community has generated over 12,000 ideas and of those Dell has implemented 386 ideas. That’s 386 improvements to Dell’s business, given, and mandated democratically, by their own customers for free. I’ll say that again – for FREE. And it’s not only the value of these ideas that’s important, it’s also the value of the process itself. The sheer fact that Dell not only listens, but also acts is truly empowering to its customers and changes the whole customer / company relationship model. In short Dell has created a truly participative company - a company with a unique relationship with its customers.
Government that gets it
In the US, Obama’s administration is using the power of crowd-sourcing to improve government – from policy development to service innovation. When the White House wanted to develop a new information hub for Recovery.gov earlier this year they set up a ideas sharing website to crowd-source ideas from the tech community on how best to implement it – where ideas from the likes of Sir Tim Berners Lee were ranked and rated alongside ideas from bedroom coders from Texas. As when it comes to crowd-sourcing, it’s not who you are that counts, more how good idea your idea is – creating a true democracy of ideas.
Playing catch up in the UK
In the UK, we’ve been slower to embrace notions of policy crowd-sourcing and consumer empowerment. However, in the last few months there are signs that we’re slowly catching up. In the political sphere, last week the Conservative Party loudly launched their first crowd-sourcing exercise to gather ideas for their Making IT Better policy. The wider public sector’s moving somewhat slower.
To try an ignite some innovation in the public sector, last week - whilst lying in a hospital bed - I launched a new NHS crowd-sourcing service called “Help us Improve Kings”, allowing patients of Kings College Hospital (the hospital where I was) to share ideas of how to improve patient service. That’s what I call proper patient empowerment - delivered directly from a hospital bed!
In the private sector, UK companies are also starting to embrace the idea of “democratic consumerism” with Asda dipping its toe into this field with its “Your Asda” scheme – an online community given a say on future purchasing decisions. Undoubtedly the best example of a business wholly embracing the empowered consumer is the peer-to-peer loan company Zopa.com whose whole business model is based around customer participation. But why aren't more companies and governments embracing democratic consumerism like Zopa.com? Well, in short because it requires a significant culture shift and strong leadership and most execs and senior civil servants don’t have the vision. Having said that, just on last 7th December, Gordon Brown had his “Open Gov memo moment” replicating what Obama did earlier in the year by announcing his vision of “third generation government” which was built around citizen empowerment and participation. And if Gordon Brown gets this citizen empowerment thing, then the Execs of the FTSE 250 can’t be far behind . . .
About the author
Chris Quigley is co-founder of e-democracy company Delib (http://www.delib.co.uk). Delib is a leading provider of online consultation, opinion research and debate tools, helping UK, New Zealand and US government organisations to understand, engage, and connect with their citizens. Delib is particularly proud to partner the National Academy of Administration (NAPA) in the US, providing the software for several successful National Dialogues including work for the Department of Homeland Security and other US Federal government organisations. www.thenationaldialogue.org.
Delib is a UK company (based in Bristol and London) founded in 2004. Delib US (based in Washington DC) is planned to launch in the next few months.
You can reach Chris at: firstname.lastname@example.org / +44 (0)7710 145575