Unless you’ve been under a rock, or busy watching the Tour de France, you are well aware that this month Google launched their new social networking platform Google+.

Access was, still is, by invitation only.  And the elusive invitation button comes and goes, making one’s invitation more prized.

In the blog post introducing the platform, Google made it clear that Google+ is a “field trial” only. In fact, they refer to Google+ as a “project”, which infers that it’s still an effort underway.

While many early adopters were  clamoring for invitations, building their circles, and posting link after link of Google+ tips and speculation (Will it crush Facebook? Twitter?), I was struck by Google’s openness. Not only was the company encouraging its first participants to help uncover problems and suggest feature enhancements, but individuals on the Google+ team were making themselves personally available. They were sharing tips and having “hangouts” with customers.

That’s right, not only did Google release a product in beta (or perhaps alpha) but the individuals responsible weren’t hiding behind the anonymity of the corporate curtain. They actively sought engagement with customers… using their own platform!

Product manager Frances Haugen, for example, led a hangout—essentially an impromptu customer focus group— and then followed up with this post:

Awesome hangout folks! We had 29 people hop in and out over about 80 minutes – it was wonderful getting to meet everyone! Thanks for giving feedback on how we can make Google+ Profiles better and for asking great questions – I’ll make sure to have more of these sessions in the future.

Vic Gondotra, engineering VP, posted the following which was shared 1,000 times:

Please accept our apologies for the spam we caused this afternoon.

For about 80 minutes we ran out of disk space on the service that keeps track of notifications. Hence our system continued to try sending notifications. Over, and over again. Yikes.

We didn’t expect to hit these high thresholds so quickly, but we should have.

Thank you for helping us during this field trial, and once again, we are very sorry for the spam.

and the very next day shared a link to a not entirely flattering TechCrunch review with the following comment:

Lots of criticism for Google+. We are listening and working to address. Stay tuned for changes this week.

Rohit Khare, another product manager, previewed an imminent new feature saying:

We’ve been listening to feedback from our users who want more flexible ways to find their friends on Google+. One of the most flexible tools is an address book uploader, and I wanted to share the good news that it will be rolling out to everyone over the next few days.

I’ve found Google’s approach to be so refreshing, in fact, that I’ve created a Google people circle so I can continue to follow their public engagement.

Of course Google+ is targeted, for now, to the consumer market, and their own platform facilitates customer engagement. And of course those of us with enterprise customers can’t roll out an unfinished product and ask our customers to guide how we complete it. And most of us are unable to make immediate product adjustments based on customer feedback, as Google has already done.

But that doesn’t mean that we can’t learn from Google.

Let’s not be afraid to put ourselves face-to-face with our customers. We don’t need to have formal, and costly, focus groups to obtain feedback. Most vendors have online customer communities and blogs today. We can use those forums in a personal way to engage customers in conversation. To let them know we’re listening — especially when their feedback is negative.

Google has raised the bar. What are you going to do differently?

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