Customer First vs Customer Knows Best.
By Vijay Dandapani
Saturday, 18th July 2009
The WSJ has an article by writer Kelly Spors entitled 'The Customer Knows Best' which examines how the internet has enabled companies in diverse industries to easily find out what consumers think.

The article notes that companies, particularly small businesses, "are using the Internet to involve customers in decisions on everything from what to sell, how products look and work, how much they cost, and even how the company operates, like what hours a store should be open or how its floor space should be laid out."

It goes on to quote an executive from a foundation that promotes entrepreneurship as saying that "Your customers might be better at designing your product than your elite team of product designers, who might be hiding in an ivory tower somewhere." 

The hospitality industry is probably a pioneer in consumers designing a product with former customers turned entrepreneurs like Kemmons Wilson and Cecil Day going on to start international chains Holiday Inns and Days Inns based on their experiences. More recently, user-generated-content is substantively about using customer feedback to tailor the hospitality experience both in operations and design.

But even in design ideas both individual hotels and large companies such as IHG have taken to drawing upon suggestions from customers.  For instance, the newly opened MAve Hotel in New York City got its name from potential customers based on a contest. IHG's Innovation Hotel is touted as a "a showcase of some of our best ideas in sustainable tourism" and includes a "have your say" feature on its website where the company looks to "get your feedback on the innovation hotel" which they presumably will attempt to incorporate.

Nevertheless, as the Journal article notes, the approach has its drawbacks including "the risk that the crowd that provides input isn't representative of the people who might buy the product (service) later on." It also could stymie innovation with entrepreneurs going along with a safe middle of the road approach to products, service and delivery.

The hotel industry probably would have not seen a number of design ideas and products from the boutique concept to a focus on bedding as most of these owe their provenance to innovative ideas that came directly from entrepreneurs and managers from within the industry.

Ultimately, while putting the "customer first" in every aspect of service is de rigeur, it is probably infeasible to design and build a hotel on a "customer knows best" or democratic basis without sacrificing innovation to a substantive degree.

Vijay is Chief Operating Officer and part-founder of Apple Core Hotels- a chain of 5 midtown Manhattan hotels offering value and comfort in the heart of the city.Member of the board of Directors - Hotel Association of New York.

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