by Michael Schrage

Be Open to Customers Ideas, or the Competition Will Hear Them

Aug 15, 20057 mins
IT Leadership

The column you are about to read is true. It was inspired—provoked, actually—by my online interactions with a brand-conscious global financial services giant whose charge card I carry in my wallet. The name of this company is not important: I would prefer that readers focus on the point I’m trying to make rather than on the company I’m using to make it.

So, here I am on American Express’s website, banging away on my laptop, doing the thing I most despise doing as a consultant: expenses. I hate—no, loathe—expense reports. Even though expense reports are the most remunerative writing I do, they’re a pain, and keeping and tracking paper receipts is a nuisance. I remain desperately eager for easy and frictionless ways to get swiftly reimbursed for the hotels, taxis and other financial effluvia of my nomadic existence.

As I try in vain to define and cut and paste my airfare from a particular date (and my hotel receipt and taxi rides from the same date) from my online account into a Word document that will soon double as a digital expense form, it hits me: There’s a better, smarter and easier way of doing this. Much better. Much smarter. Much easier. I feel the happy tingle of hair rising on the back of my neck that physiologically signals: good idea!

As a fast-calculating idiot savant with an entrepreneurial bent, I do a quick back-of-the-mental-envelope number-crunch and figure that this is, conservatively, a $50 million-a-year idea for my charge card company. That’s real money.

But because I’m the kind of guy who will cheerfully give away a $50 million idea if it will make my life easier, I immediately stop doing my expenses online and draft a 650-word e-mail telling Amex how it could design, prototype, test and deploy this scheme.

In a moment, I’ll explain the idea and justify its multimillion-dollar valuation. But the real reason I’m writing this column is not to tout my idea’s brilliance but to declare my frustration. My charge card company—and I’ve been a member in excellent standing for over 15 years—simply would not let me submit my memo either online or via the phone.

You want to talk CRM? You want to talk about sustainable sources of strategic advantage? Let me emphatically state: If you don’t have infrastructures or apps that make it easy for your best and most profitable customers to give you—give you—ideas about how you can do better and be better, you need to rethink what digital networks can and should mean in your organization.

Any company that sells products or services online needs to provide the means to encourage customers not just to whine and complain but also to suggest and enhance. That’s not hard technically. Alas, what’s technically easy all too often means nothing to the cultural, organizational and managerial resistance that defies cost-effective implementation. If you want smart feedback, you have to design for it. Even a little respect goes a long way.

Ideas for Free

Unfortunately my charge card company’s feedback button linked to an annoying questionnaire and no conceivable way to send any kind of meaningful e-mail or memo. Thus began my quixotic effort to give away a $50 million idea.

First I picked up the phone and called customer service. I politely explained that I had an interesting—and potentially important—idea for the company’s website that could be worth tens of millions of dollars. I asked how I could send my e-mail.

The equally polite customer service rep (everyone was polite and professional) explained that there was no customer service e-mailbox where it could be sent. She transferred me to the interactive services group. The lady there first referred me to the site’s feedback button but agreed its interface was inadequate for my kind of feedback. I asked for an alternate e-mail address. She said she didn’t have one to give.

I explained (politely) that I wrote a column for CIO, worked at MIT and was someone who paid my (rather large) charge card bills on time. Surely someone in her group would be interested in this idea. Moreover, I was a valued customer. Didn’t she have some sort of e-mailbox for valued customers? The answer was a very polite but very firm “no.”

Back to the main customer service line. Same results. No way to send an e-mail. I asked to speak to a supervisor. The supervisor says, “No e-mail.” I ask how customers can make suggestions for improved service. She offers a snail-mail address.

Back to interactive services. I ask to speak to a supervisor there. A gentleman explains there is no enterprise mailbox address for online customers either—but maybe he could get authorization to give out his e-mail address or a colleague’s. Long delay. Long delay. Long delay. I feel myself slowly changing from Don Quixote into Captain Ahab. He finally returns. He has an e-mail address for another supervisor. We double-check to make sure it’s accurate.

I immediately send my memo. It gets bounced. I wait 24 hours. I try again. Nada. Nothing. Bubkes. When you’ve got a lemon, make lemonade. I decide to salvage my wasted time by writing this column.

But what’s the big idea? Could it really be worth $50 million a year? You be the judge: My charge card company should offer an online expense report form that allows individuals like me to drag and drop individual expense items into a coherent, time-stamped and authenticated document that can be securely e-mailed to one’s clients. The digital document would look and feel professional; you could send it either from your own address or from the card company’s site. You could store the forms on your own machine or with the company or both.

Privacy concerns? Security? Come on! Do you really care who gets access to your expenses? Only a celebrity or a CEO who flies around in a Gulfstream V needs be wary of this service. After all, the charge card number can be appropriately masked.

Yes, I know about Quicken and other expense management software. But frankly, it would be faster, easier and simpler if I could just do everything online. Would I pay $29.95 a year to be able to prepare and send expenses this way? Cheerfully! Would I spend $50 a year to prepare, send and back up my expenses this way? You bet!

Do the math. How many sole proprietors, freelance consultants and individuals—inside companies and out—are targets for this kind of service? My bet is, easily 1.5 million to 2.5 million cardholders and small businesses. A simple query to online users would help gauge global interest.

The bottom line? I can’t give Amex a $50 million idea for free. Whether you like my idea or not is beside the point. The point is, your customers can and should be a dynamic source of ongoing innovation and inspiration for your organization. If you don’t have a virtual suggestion box for them, you should. If you don’t, don’t be surprised when your smartest customers give their best ideas to your fiercest competitors.

Michael Schrage is codirector of the MIT Media Lab’s eMarkets Initiative. He welcomes your suggestions via e-mail at