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Listening Beats Talking: Four Principles for Doing Business in the Network Economy

Submitted by on December 27, 2008 – 12:58 pm16 Comments

Here are four key principles for creating a stronger business in the network economy:

  • Listening beats Talking
  • Open beats Closed
  • Relationships Beat Transactions
  • Questions beat Answers

Over the course of the next few posts I will be going into details on each.  If you have questions or other examples to put into the posts – please add them into the comments.  Part one focuses on Listening beats Talking.

Listening beats Talking
In the network – listening is a prerequisite to learning.  It is the critical precursor of everything we do – the beginning of joining conversations, building trust, learning and developing relationships.
Listening is not passive, it is another way of finding answers from new places – from customers, partners and employees outside of the traditional leadership circle.  It sounds simple but the problem is that most of our companies are structured to talk – Marketing, PR, Communications departments, even tradshows and events are all vehicles for advocacy – not inquiry or information gathering.
Fox, GM (yes, it is true), Salesforce.com are all examples of companies that are listening in new ways  but I want to take a deeper look at what Starbucks is doing as an illustration of Listening beats Talking:
I am no fan of the company but I have been impressed by www.mystarbucksidea.com.

Taking a quick look at the interface you can immediately see what they are doing right.  Users can submit any idea for consideration.  Other users (and this is critical) can vote these ideas up or down and discuss  them.  Often the comments build out the initial idea and give it more substance or potential value.  The key insight here is that the normal role of the product manager, the person who sorts through ideas and assesses their potential value, is being done by the community itself.    Rather than ask and answer the question from within the company, Starbucks is using listening as a form of customer led innovation. This same idea can also be applied to many areas of your business including product development (which ideas are most important to improve customer experience of my product) and human resources (more on that below).

Once the ideas are in motion Starbucks has managers that can respond in the comments.   Ideas that get a lot of votes/comments can then be put into review.  As a user you can see that the idea is actively under consideration.  The whole process is public; from “under review” to “reviewed” and (potentially) “Launched”

For a quick tour of all the changes and innovations that have been inspired by their customers – check out the Starbucks blog here.  This is just one detailed example of Listening beats Talking.
Dell and Salesforce.com have also had great results with these types of idea exchanges.  On the B2B front Salesforce used the same Idea Exchange platform has has been able to deliver “four new releases [in 2007], in contrast to only two in 2006.  New releases now include three hundred new features, three times as many as in previous years.” (source, Groundswell pg. 186)

Human Resources Where Art Though?
Lest you think that this is just a business-to-consumer idea – what about hooking your internal employee population up to something like this?  Imagine two big buttons on your intranet, “Things we Should Do Less Of” and “Things We Should Do More Of”  -  “…Less Of” lists suggestion to drive down waste and inefficiency   “…More Of” drives employee led innovation through suggestions on what the company should be doing.   Following Starbuck’s example, all suggestions are transparent to other employees and can be voted up or down – management closes the loop by putting winning ideas under review and implementing select ones.  Traditional “workout” sessions aimed at eliminating redundancies and waste that used to be conducted with a limited team together in a room can now be distributed on a simple platform accessible to all employees regardless of title or workplace.  That is powerful.

How to Prepare:
In its more mature form Listening is a commitment to take action on the part of your company so if you launch something like this then be prepared to handle the “tail costs” of reviewing ideas, responding to comments and honestly committing to a few winning ideas.  Also, be prepared to see some criticism aired in the open.  Trust me, that criticism is already happening around the proverbial watercooler (for your employees) or in other public forums (for your customers).  The difference here is that you will be able to see it and do something about it.

Next Post will focus on “Open beats Closed”


  • JT says:

    Thanks Josh,
    This is a very useful post for me… the question I have is this… In the beginning of your post you talk about the fact that companies are not structured to listen… Amen to that. But how does one build a case for getting “structured to listen”? Do you start small or do I go to my boss and ask for some major changes right away? Also – I saw your talk at Web 2.0 Expo last April and you went over some of these principles. Why did it take you so long to put this up? Wasn’t this part of your talk way back then?

  • Joshua-Michéle says:

    JT -
    In reverse order – I just never got around to formalizing the talk into a post – also – these are quite long so I was unsure about whether to put them into a blog format — I have since realized I generally write in long form.

    As to structure – take a look at this post on the necessity of leadership in making bigger changes… – Also, this slideshow from a webcast I did on becoming an internal evangelist inside the organization. That said – people like Comcastcares on Twitter are creating a lot of positive PR and that move was not a top-down decision. The trouble is that the answer to your question is context specific – dealing with your company, its relationships w/ customers, its culture etc… I’d be happy to follow up w/ you via email: josh at opposableplanets dot com.

  • I am skeptical that what you describe here is what most people mean when they use the word “listening,” which implies the context of a reciprocal, mutually beneficial relationship.

    If you read the terms and conditions of the Starbucks Idea web site, you see that when you submit an idea, “you grant to Starbucks and its designees a perpetual, irrevocable, non-exclusive fully-paid up and royalty free license…. The license shall include, without limitation, the irrevocable right to … license the Idea, and all rights therein, in the name of Starbucks, or its designees throughout the universe in perpetuity in any and all media now or hereafter known…. the Idea represents your own original work… You understand that … no compensation is due to you….”

    In other words, for Starbucks, this isn’t just about customers saying, “Hey, I’d like to see decaf Earl Grey on the menu.” It’s about Starbucks getting people to contribute valuable business proposals for free. This isn’t what I call “listening.” I think “stealing” would be a better word. I can’t blame Starbucks for wanting to get people to work for free. What surprises me is that there are customers willing to play the part of marketing interns.

    And Starbucks doesn’t exactly have a culture of listening, as far as I can see. The National Labor Relations Board has ruled against Starbucks three times in one month for unfair labor practices against employees who have tried to unionize (http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/businesstechnology/2008596017_webstarbucks06.html). A settlement last week was for firing a pro-union worker who complained about a leaky air conditioner. (Maybe he should have submitted his idea to fix the air conditioner through the Starbucks Idea web site.)

    This post focuses on the technological side of listening, and Starbucks is doing that well. But without a culture that truly supports it, I see it as just another cynical marketing gimmick for simple-minded, gullible customers. If I had a valuable idea for how to make more money selling coffee, I sure as hell wouldn’t tell Starbucks.

  • Joshua-Michéle says:

    God Bless You! You know I always have some ambivalence about raising Starbucks. In truth, I loathe their brand (don’t get me started)– it is just that they provide a great example of how to do it right – from interface to staffing it right to taking action. I don’t mind the terms and conditions since I don’t expect them to relate in any other way to a random, mass audience slopping good/bad ideas together in the dozens per day. Given our litigious society (and I include Starbucks in that) I am not sure that there would be another good option.

    However I do think that your point about their underlying identity as a purveyor of junk food and low-wage jobs is dead on…. When I run my Social Web training courses I always caveat the case study. Just because they are an example doesn’t mean they are exemplary!

    As to “Listening” I do think Starbucks is doing something important – they are allowing ordinary people to share ideas about how to improve their cafe experience. It is precisely because Starbucks is such a trashy place (in my opinion) that the quality of the ideas is so surprising. It isn’t all about “give me a free cup on my birthday” here. It is about sourcing organic, local products, recycling paper etc. And they are implementing a lot of these ideas. I am not naive about the role of corporations in our society right now — but I do think it is interesting that people that care about Starbucks ALSO care about doing better.

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  • staffing321 says:

    this isn't just about customers saying, “Hey, I'd like to see decaf Earl Grey on the menu.” It's about Starbucks getting people to contribute valuable business proposals for free. This isn't what I call “listening.

    Find more jobs: http://www.staffingpower.com/

  • joshuamross says:

    I am no great fan of Starbucks – and I understand a portion of your argument. But if you follow your argument to its logical conclusion – are old fashioned suggestion boxes exploitation? Millions of customers go to Starbucks daily – and many of them would prefer to see their shared ideas lead to an improved experience.

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