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The Ultimate Test Drive

Why companies are turning to customers for help with design.

Increasingly, the Internet will be the source of that input. Threadless.com, which solicits T-shirt art from consumers and lets site visitors vote on the designs they want produced, has become a real success with the MySpace set. Likewise, user rooms aimed at distilling customers’ wants and needs are popping up on more-traditional corporate Websites. Kraft Foods Inc., the consumer-products manufacturer, gathers feedback from about 300 targeted customers (predominantly middle-aged women) in a private, online chat group.

The virtual coffee klatch has paid dividends. After group members repeatedly mentioned their difficulties with portion control, Kraft developed 100-Calorie Packs, a smaller snack bag.

Sales of the packs weren’t puny, topping $100 million in their first nine months on the market. Rebecca Wettemann, vice president of research at Wellesley, Massachusetts-based technology advisory firm Nucleus Research, believes businesses will come to rely more on this kind of virtual collaboration with shoppers. One driving force: the emergence of better Web and text-mining tools, which Wettemann says will make it easier for companies to analyze customer data. Says Wettemann: “It’s just starting to become the job of the E-commerce manager to look at how to solicit input on product design and placement.”

Got a Whiter Shade of Pale?

Software companies have long used the Internet to gather feedback from a disparate but enthusiastic audience. Now, nontechnology companies are seeing the possibilities as well.

Case in point: when John Fluevog, CEO of the Vancouver-based footwear company that bears his name, used to travel to the company’s retail outlets, customers and employees would hand him slips of paper. “They contained drawings of their ideal shoe,” recalls Stephen Bailey, marketing director at John Fluevog Shoes and Boots. Invariably, though, “John would lose the paper.”

Determined to capture those drawings, in 2003 the company launched “Open Source Footwear.” An interactive Web page, the tool lets visitors submit footwear designs directly to the company. Since the rollout of the site, Fluevog has received more than 1,000 submissions; 11 have actually been made into shoes. The company also actively seeks consumer suggestions on business decisions ranging from ad campaigns to color choices. “From a company perspective,” explains Bailey, “it keeps everyone here focused on the fact that we’re all working for our customers.”

Working with them, too. This sort of partnering with customers is also becoming more commonplace at larger operations. Pittsfield, Massachusetts-based business-to-business specialist GE Plastics, for instance, teams with corporate customers to electronically create custom colors. In the past, the company’s diverse group of clients (which ranges from motorcycle-helmet manufacturers to surgical-stapler makers) submitted a form to request a particular color. David Reis, ColorXpress business leader at GE Plastics, says the paper-based approach was a long, drawn-out affair.

The Web-based system has dramatically shortened turnaround times for custom colors. Moreover, GE has collected these co-created shades over the years, building up a vast online samples library. That catalog features tens of thousands of distinct shades crafted by previous customers — and often requested by current ones. The colors are also added to GE Plastics’s manufacturing systems. “So if you’re a company and you order resin for production in China,” notes Reis, “our plant can pull down all that information on the formula to make that color globally.”

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