The Big Upside of Customer Participation

Encouraging customers to provide feedback and recommendations directly to a company engages them in valuable ways.

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Companies think a lot about cultivating word of mouth among customers. But what they should also be paying attention to is customer feedback. New research shows that encouraging customers to provide feedback and suggestions helps tie them more closely to a business, and that customers who participate are actually more likely to become repeat customers and buy more of a company’s products and services.

Drawing on their global research, Omar Merlo (Imperial College Business School in London), Andreas B. Eisingerich (Imperial College Business School) and Seigyoung Auh (Thunderbird School of Global Management) write that “both customer-to-customer reviews and customer-to-business interactions can influence a customer’s propensity to buy more of a company’s products and services.” The act of providing feedback and suggestions helps align customers to a business, and “companies can even recapture defecting customers simply by contacting them and encouraging them to participate.”

In their article “Why Customer Participation Matters,” in the Winter 2014 issue of MIT Sloan Management Review, the researchers quote some managers directly: “The chief operating officer of an international consumer electronics company noted: ‘Levels of feedback is a way we identify our most profitable customers. Those that bother to write to us do care. And they do spend money with us.’ . . . The CEO of a large Chinese financial services organization recounted an incident in which a customer who was about to defect wrote to the company to give feedback and offer some suggestions. The company immediately contacted the customer, addressed his concerns and recommendations and offered him the honorary title of ‘quality controller.’ The customer decided not to take his business elsewhere and became one of the company’s most loyal and profitable customers.”

The researchers also looked at a sample of 327 customers of a global bank headquartered in Europe who engaged in either positive word of mouth, or provided suggestions and feedback directly to the company, or both. In trying to identify the most valuable customers, they found that customers who ranked high in participation tended to purchase more products and services, regardless of whether they did or did not engage in positive word of mouth.


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Comment (1)
The authors make an excellent point regarding the importance of moving from a tactical to a more strategic approach to customer participation. This is critical for all forms of social marketing.

Southwest Airlines is cited as an example of a company that has made this transition. That is no accident. The companies that embrace social business as a natural evolution of their business models are those that have always been customer-centric. These companies, at least relative to their peers, have always viewed themselves as “agents of the customer,” focusing first on creating superior customer value, while understanding that profit is one outcome of successfully creating and communicating customer value.

Companies that pursue any social marketing or social business initiative as, first and foremost, another tactic to improve shot-term profitability, are increasingly at risk, given the exponential increase in customers’ access to information, and in their ability to talk with one another.