Dell uses social media to tap customer ideas

A behind-the-scenes look at how Dell’s IdeaStorm gives customers a forum for ideas and complaints.

It’s a simple idea: Give your customers an opportunity to suggest how to improve your products. Make their suggestions public, no matter how negative or harsh they might be. And on top of all that, communicate back, letting your customers know where you stand on making their suggestions a reality.

For most companies, the idea of giving the customer a soapbox to potentially criticize your product is absurd. For computer giant Dell, however, it’s the new m.o.

Enter IdeaStorm, Dell’s online community of more than 31,000 registered users who make suggestions daily on how Dell can improve its products. From operating systems and pricing to the number of wires it takes to hook up a Dell and every topic in between, IdeaStorm is successful.

“One week from the site’s launch, Dell had already received more than 1,700 ideas from more than 160,000 unique visitors,” Caroline Dietz, manager of IdeaStorm, said. “The response was tremendous … We’ve continued to see growing interest in commenting and voting on ideas, and customers are eager to see Dell put their ideas in action.”

It’s no secret Dell has long been heralded for its customer communication. Dell saw great success with having two-way conversations with their customers online with Direct2Dell, a corporate blog launched in 2006. But it was only after a roundtable with customers and bloggers at the January 2007 Consumer Electronics Show (CES), that IdeaStorm was born.

“The experience of introducing [Direct2Dell] got us excited about the possibilities of having even more two-way conversations with our customers online,” Dietz said. “There were a lot of ideas shared during the [CES roundtable]. These two driving forces led to Michael Dell’s decision to launch IdeaStorm.”

IdeaStorm not only allows customers to post suggestions for improvements, it also allows users to vote for (or ‘promote’ as it’s called on the site) and comment on suggestions posted by other users. The ideas that are promoted the most find their way to the main pages of the site, not to mention catching the eyes of Dell managers.

“One of the unique features of IdeaStorm, and possibly one of its greatest values to our customer relationships, is our ability to ‘close the loop’ directly with customers, to let them know what we’re doing with their idea,” Dietz said.

Dell ‘closes the loop’ with customers by commenting directly on the posts or by notifying the online community of new initiatives they will implement inspired by customers’ comments in their new “Ideas in Action” page.

Follow in Dell’s footsteps. So how do you go about launching your own customer forum? Dietz admits it was a little easier for Dell since the decision came from Michael Dell himself, but she does have a few recommendations.

1. Have thick skin. “An organization that is thinking about creating an online community for ideas needs to start with a high level of comfort with the transparency of customer conversations online.”

2. Don’t underestimate participation or volume.

3. Be an active moderator. Your customers want to hear from you.

4. Make friends with legal. “[Despite executive buy-in], I did have to work closely with our legal team, including our intellectual property legal team, to ensure that the proper terms and conditions were in place.”

5. Subject matter experts need to participate in the conversations.

6. Allow for humor and chatting.

7. Have a plan. “Be sure to have an idea management process in place, and ‘sell’ that concept to the leaders of your product and service teams. Their participation and engagement is critical for success.”

8. Don’t censor. “But when you must moderate, do so with care and candor.”

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