Suggestion Box: As Good As a Ballot Box

It's not a computer, it's not a new touch-tone phone system. It's not even fancy. But it can do a lot for communications within your co-op-and it's cheap to operate.

It's a suggestion box.

When we talk of ways to develop member involvement in co-ops, for most members we're really talking about improving the two-way system of communication in the co-op. Members have questions, suggestions, complaints about how their co-op works. They need a convenient place to voice these concerns. Co-op board members and staff need to listen to all this advice and act on it promptly.

A suggestion box serves as a conduit for this back and forth information. It makes everyone feel more a part of the co-op. Besides, I love getting mail in the morning, and the suggestion box has never failed me. Here are some suggestions for building a better box.

1. How to Lose Friends and Involve No One: If your co-op doesn't have some means to handle complaints and suggestions, it has probably lost some business and a few members.

How? Most people don't like to complain; they gripe instead. Studies done by Technical Assistance Research Programs (TARP), have shown that the average business doesn't hear from 96 percent of its unhappy customers. But people with a grievance do complain to their friends. On average, a person dissatisfied with a product or service will tell nine or ten other people.

On the other hand, if the business can respond quickly and effectively to the complaint, up to 95 percent of the complainers will become loyal shoppers and they will tell an average of five people of their positive experience.

By soliciting bad news, a co-op or any other business can find out where problems are, can correct them, and can benefit from positive word-of-mouth advertising. Those are the chief benefits of a suggestion box.

2. Form Follows Function: Our suggestion box is located near the front of the store (we plan to put a second one at the exit). Although the box is built on casters, we don't move it -- it should have a permanent place, so people can make a beeline to it. The basic design is a box with slanted top (to make writing easier) and a bulletin board attached for posting comments. The box is finished with red formica to increase visibility.

Suggestions, etc., are written on forms that have a top half for the customer's query, the bottom half for the co-op response, and space in between for the all-important name, address, and phone number of the correspondent. (We borrowed this design from the Puget Consumer Co-op.)

What Happens Next: The box is emptied every morning, usually by me, but it could be done by volunteers as well. Comments that refer to specific products go to the general manager or the board of directors. This gives a nice ripple effect to each suggestion.

But the most important step is a fast response. We try to answer suggestions within 72 hours -- TARP's research indicates that the faster the reply, the more satisfied the customer.

We try to call the member at home (it's a little more personal, and often the conversation leads to other ideas). If there's no luck with the phone, we photocopy the question/answer form and send it along, checking first to see if the person is a member. If they're not a member, we stuff membership information in the envelope.

All suggestions are posted for a week, then taken down and filed in a notebook. This gives us a day-by-day record of trends in the co-op. If two or three people in a month say the bathrooms need cleaning, we've got to reorganize our maintenance schedule. If the same number say the co-op ought to be open later, we should study store hours. We even use the record of suggestions to spot which members might like to serve on committees or on the board.

Comments that have a general appeal or ones that are so funny they make good copy are reprinted in our Co-op News. We set aside page two of the News for the "You Asked Forum," and it's no surprise that this is the best read section of the paper. Members like to read what other members are writing.

The Cost: Our suggestion box cost $100 in materials, $100 in labor to build it, and $30 for 2,000 suggestion box forms. It's an investment that pays for itself every month.

The biggest cost, actually, is the time spent keeping up with suggestions. We figure that it takes an average of 20 minutes to reply to each comment. That can be multiplied into a sizeable chunk of staff time, or it can be turned over to volunteers trained to do the job promptly.

The ideas we get from the suggestion box far outweigh any expense. Most new products we carry started in the suggestion box. We've even had suggestions on how to improve the suggestion form.

The suggestion box is a simple and direct means to involve members in the co-op. Obviously, it's just one of many ways for members to be participants and not just bystanders in the affairs of their co-op.

If you have any comments about this system, what can I say? I'm open to suggestions!

See other articles from this issue: #008 December - January - 1987