Turning Our Customers into Colleagues

12/14/2009 01:14 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Much of the discussion about the best use of social media focuses on the importance of listening--monitoring customer online chatter and letting customers give feedback by phone or e-mail. That's certainly a good place to start. But listening is only the beginning of a genuine partnership that the most effective use of social media creates between a company and its customers.

At Dell, we think about social media in terms of the "Mom and Pop" business. Imagine the best-run family-owned restaurants in your neighborhood. How do they keep getting better? By acting on their customers' ideas. They might have a suggestion box, or perhaps a bulletin board on which you can pin your thought for the other patrons to read. After a while the restaurant's owners will write a response and describe what decisions they reached.

Replicating the suggestion board in virtual form is what got us excited about IdeaStorm, our customer suggestion site, when we first launched it in 2007. But our customers had an even better idea--Storm Sessions, topic-specific and time-bound idea-generating digital discussions whose purpose is to take customer insights and turn them into improved Dell products and services.

It's as if Mom and Pop decided to ask their customers what music to play on Friday nights, and gave them two days to weigh in, advancing the discussion by having each customer build on the suggestions of the ones before. In no time the community has reached a conclusion, and one Friday there's an acoustic guitarist playing in the background.

This is a new way to think about how to listen and respond to your customers. Gone are the days of solely relying on traditional focus groups or phone and Web surveys. Social networks have the power to harness that intelligence in a much more organized and efficient manner than ever before. There is value to the business, which can implement enormous changes that are destined to succeed. There is value to the customers, who are taking the time to provide their best thinking to a business they patronize. It's a partnership that begins--not ends--with listening.