Customer communities or cat poo?

Want to make better coffee? Ask your customers for ideas - or grind up some civet droppings...

Last Updated: 06 Nov 2012

As coffee devotees, we at MT were delighted to read this week about a new caffeine-based delicacy that’s apparently all the rage in the more upmarket establishments of London (i.e. the kind of places we’re not usually allowed in to). Until we realised that this heinously-expensive brew is made by grinding up the droppings of an Asian palm civet. Since these small cats are known for the potent musk they can fire at unsuspecting foes, we’re glad that we’re not the ones who have to persuade them to eat some Kopi Luwak berries, and some time later, pluck the beans out of their 'stool' and clean them up for roasting. But if we did, we’d probably charge £324 per kilo for the resulting concoction too.

While we dread to think how someone came up with this extraordinary manufacturing process in the first place (did they discover a steaming pile of dung as they crawled along the jungle floor and think, mmm, that would make a nice cappuccino?), we can’t help but admire its ingenuity. And best of all, if you fancy trying a cup, you’ll be doing it for a good cause: all profits from the sale of the Caffe Raro blend will go to Macmillan Cancer Support. Even if it does taste like s**t.

But back at the more accessible end of the coffee market, US giant Starbucks has taken a very different approach to innovation. No experimenting with Asian feline faeces for CEO Howard Schultz – instead he’s decided to take the more orthodox step of asking his customers how he can resurrect his flagging coffee brand. '' is a website where aficionados can go and suggest ideas that they think would improve their Starbucks experience; other readers then vote on the ideas or suggest improvements, and Starbucks provides feedback on the ones it likes.

And customers are loving it. Since the site’s launch in March, they’ve logged on in their thousands to suggest free Wi-fi, free birthday coffees, loyalty cards, and all sorts of other weird and wonderful ideas. Sceptics abound, of course; some bloggers say the site has run out of steam already (perhaps Starbucks has milked it for all it’s worth?). But we think it’s great that so many customers are getting the chance to stick their oar in – and just as importantly, for Starbucks to show that it’s listening to them.

It’s following in the footsteps of computer giant Dell, whose Ideastorm website has already yielded 8,000 new product ideas and 65,000 customer comments. Charlie Osmond of FreshNetworks, a business which runs similar online customer communities in the UK, says the technology is in its infancy – but its potential is huge. ‘Customer communities are a great way for companies to get deeper understanding of customer needs and to drive innovation and word of mouth at the same time.’

After all, better for your customers to make a stink than your supply chain....

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