Everyone knows that it is absolutely essential to get feedback from your community. What everyone might not know is how engaged the community can be.
I learned this through experience: When I was at eBay we created a program called Voice of the Community (more commonly referred to as “Voices”) as a way to stay in touch, hear about concerns and identify new trends.The program began out of a need. We had initiated two changes: the prohibition of selling firearms and the elimination of the Live Support Boards. These changes were not well received. Instead of looking the other way and waiting for it to pass, CEO Meg Whitman said, “Let’s hear what they have to say, face-to-face.” We flew 12 eBay buyers and sellers (some of the loudest ones!) to our headquarters to sit down and talk with us for two days. It was an invaluable experience. We were able to hear what they thought about our products and policies, and that was able to give us clear direction. We decided this kind of event should happen more often.
We grew the program by inviting more eBay users in to share their thoughts on what was happening. We not only asked them for their thoughts about what was currently happening, but we confided in them. We told them about new products and features we planned to roll out, asking for their opinions. We gained important insights on the integration of PayPal, the Seller Information Box and the redesign of the Help system.
We also added forums and email distribution lists as a way to get others involved. As with all engaged communities, moderation was a must. I received all of the emails from them, so I knew what the general mood was at all times. The Voices groups took their charter seriously and keep us informed at all times. On most days I would get 10 – 15 emails, on bad days I would get hundreds! These messages would often serve as the canary in the coal mine. I read each one and saw what an amazing tool this was to help us understand what we needed to do.
One time, one of our top sellers, Bob Miller, who sold vintage stamps and postcards from his home in Utah, was so fed up with a new feature that he put his eBay Voices jacket up for auction on eBay in protest. Meg and Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay, flew out to Utah to meet with him. They listened intently — Meg took four pages of notes — and we decided to take the contested feature off and make it optional. We invited Bob to our All Hands meeting so we could hear what he thought, and so everyone could learn from him. And he knew he was heard. “No other large corporation listens nearly as well as they do,” he said of eBay in a BusinessWeek article.
eBay was early in its community engagement efforts and many companies have followed its lead. But today we have to pay attention to our customers wherever they are, not just where we invite them to be. There are far more interactions and discussions happening than the ones they have with you. Today’s customer engages directly and indirectly, and wise companies find a way to listen to all of them across all channels. Not doing so is too big of a risk: As we learned from the community at eBay, passionate customers give clear direction on the path to improvement.