Thursday, October 15, 2009, 1:21 PM

How to give customers and shareholders a voice

During my first job search out of college, a mentor told me: "Don't be afraid to ask people for help. If they help you, they become vested in your success. They view your success as a reflection on their efforts."

The same could be said for how companies engage their stakeholders, whether they be customers or investors. It may seem odd to ask customers or shareholders for help, but it can go a long way toward influencing public opinion in your favor.

Here are three examples of organizations asking their stakeholders for help or advice in a very public way and, in my view, strengthening their reputations in the process:

1. Microsoft: The tech giant is one of the first Fortune 500's to allow shareholders to vote on executive compensation. The "say on pay" proposal is non-binding, but it nonetheless positions Microsoft in the court of public opinion as inclusive of its stakeholders, receptive to a broader dialogue, and a leader in corporate compensation reform. One could argue that legislation pending in Congress could make shareholder votes a requirement anyway, but Microsoft deserves credit for getting ahead of Congress and engaging its stakeholders at a time of its own choosing.

2. Hallmark: The card maker has challenged its customers to design the best holiday cards and submit them on the company's website. The best designs will be sold online. The best of the best will be sold in stores, as well. What better way to guarantee someone buys your product than to let them design the product?

3. State of Wisconsin: The state's natural resources department is letting citizens vote online for a new license plate design, the proceeds of which will benefit endangered species. By opening up the process, the department did a far better job promoting the license plate than if it had made the decision behind closed doors. By giving citizens a say in the process, they are more likely to buy the license plate and help a worthy cause in the process.

When was the last time your organization gave its stakeholders a say in anything? If it's been a while and you're looking for ideas, give us a call or send us an email.

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