When you started your business, you had a vision for where it was headed and how you'd get there. Now that you're in the thick of it, make sure you're listening to your customers and what they want your company to look like.
To some, the thought of customers making a business -- especially a large business -- change in any significant way seems unlikely. Companies often pay lip service to the value of listening to customers, but only make meaningful changes to their business based on their own vision. Many companies are very reluctant to change -- short of an all-out customer protest. But some of the best known companies in the world have learned valuable lessons from allowing customers to have a say in how their business operates.
The famous debacle of Coca-Cola rolling out "New Coke" in 1985 could have been avoided if the company had listened to focus groups, where up to 12 percent of participants said they would be angry if Coke replaced their tried-and-true formula with the new one. Angry -- not just prefer that they not change the formula! Instead, Coke went with the results of taste tests alone and had to reverse their entire marketing and distribution plan just three months later, when consumers basically revolted against the company.
Since then, there are plenty of examples of smarter companies, big and small, making changes or implementing new ideas based on customer feedback or use of their product or service that they could never have predicted. Some great examples of this are:
The Twitter hashtag and RT (Retweet). The use of these tools are so much a part of what Twitter is now, it's hard to imagine that the company didn't intend their use from the start. Hashtags were suggested by one Twitter user in 2007 and began to catch on with users from then on. It took until 2009 for Twitter to fully embrace them and start hyperlinking hashtags. RTs also began to show up in 2007 and quickly caught on strongly among Twitter users. In 2009, Twitter introduced a retweet function to replace "RT @..." and make it an "official" Twitter function.
Beverages and More. If you live in or have traveled to California, Arizona or Washington State, you're probably familiar with this regional chain and call it Bevmo. In this case, the company actually went as far as changing its name based on what customers were calling it. This was clearly not part of the plan when the business was formed in 1994, but because customers had adopted the Bevmo name, the company rebranded and made the formal name change in 2001.
99Designs. In our book, Small Business, BIG Vision, my brother and I interviewed Matt Mickiewicz, the founder of SitePoint.com. Matt's company went through a couple of transformations due to market demand, but perhaps the most significant was the creation of 99Designs, where an entire separate company was created out of a SitePoint forum thread. People made the design contest thread one of the most popular on the site, and Matt and his team were watching and listening. Thus 99Designs was born, and it has become, by all measures, a thriving company of its own.
The point here is not to make major business changes on a whim based on something a customer -- or even several customers -- does or says. Your vision for your business is important, and while it should be somewhat fluid, you'll end up being all over the place if you don't stick to it to a large degree.
What's important to take from these examples is that the best, most innovative, most forward-thinking companies have made it part of their model to constantly monitor and listen to their communities. They know when there's a lot of chatter about a topic that affects their business, and they aren't afraid to consider changes based on customer desires.
Whether you have a small firm with one employee or a medium to large company, you have the same ability to monitor your communities as any huge corporation. In fact, you have a big advantage over most of the big companies: making a change to your business model based on customer feedback is probably a lot easier and can be implemented a lot quicker.
So take advantage of this opportunity. Participate in social media fully, implement an active blog on your website and even consider starting a forum for your customers. The more input the better. Who knows -- your customers might just mold your business into something bigger and better than you ever imagined!