Customers can be a good source of new product ideas, but if you don't acknowledge their contributions, you may be missing out on a chance to win their loyalty, as well as their business. One company in Cleveland goes so far as to award plaques to customers who offer suggestions leading to new products.

The company, Crescent Metal Products Inc., manufactures and distributes equipment for the food-service industry. About two years ago, a food-service director of the San Diego schools approached Crescent with an idea for a mobile serving table for the school yard, offering students an alternative to their usual fast-food diet. Crescent went on to produce the table, which last year was one of the company's top 25 products, out of 800 overall.

In appreciation, company president George E. Baggott presented the food-service director with a plaque and publicized her contribution in the company's newsletter and the trade press. He has since done the same for other customers, thus encouraging new ideas and winning a few points in the process.