Keene Addington, president of Flat Top Grill, a Chicago-based restaurant chain, takes that philosophy to heart. In January he assigned a full-time marketing person to chat via e-mail and Twitter with as many of the chain's 75,000 customers as possible.
One customer suggested serving make-your-own wraps prepared with lettuce. These wraps are now the chain's most popular appetizer. Amid hard times for the restaurant industry, Flat Top Grill's same-store sales climbed 6.5% last year. Addington expects sales to grow by an additional 3.9% in 2009.
"Your guests are going to tell you how to be successful," he says.
For Canadian shoemaker John Fluevog, customers do more than make suggestions -- they design the products. Fluevog runs an "open-source footwear" project. Anyone can submit shoe designs to an online community of customers who vote on their favorites. In the past six years Fluevog has received more than 1,000 design ideas and turned a dozen of them into marketable shoes.
Fluevog took the open-source concept one step further by asking customers to vote on which of his existing lines should be cut or retained and which print ads to run. Whatever the majority says, the company does. After customers voted on color combinations for the Sencha T-strap high heel, it became one of the best-selling shoes of the fall 2007 season. Despite the recession, the 115-employee company continues to grow its same-store and wholesale sales.
NEXT: STEP 5: Share the load