Your customers may be the most overlooked source of innovation for your business. Invite their feedback and see what happens!
Customers are also customizers
Many companies overlook a valuable and very cost-effective source of innovation — the customers who use their products and services. Any customer who uses a product with a twist — no matter how small or seemingly minor – can provide valuable insight and ideas for product innovation that can help your company grow and flourish.
Untold numbers of consumers add their own spin to the tools and products they use every day. Whether they stonewash new jeans, repurpose wine pumps to keep olive oil fresh, or jailbreak cellphones to better meet their needs, consumers are actively involved in transforming products so make them more useful, more appealing or more effective. Eventually, businesses may hear about the ways customers adapt and alter their products and integrate the innovations in their products or marketing efforts. More often, however, it is competitors who spot the opportunity presented by incremental innovations in the field, and design products that incorporate them. And seize valuable market share in the process.
Building a better peeler
A personal example is a good illustration: Years ago, one of my aunts bequeathed to me a strange contraption. It was an old-fashioned metal vegetable peeler, with an important difference: One year, in preparation for a large holiday dinner, my uncle set about peeling over five pounds of potatoes. Finding that the metal handle of the potato peeler cut into his hand, he wrapped tens of rubber bands around the handle to cushion the edges of the metal — in effect, designing a prototype of the innovative and wildly successful rubber-handled peeler that launched OXO – a company which far eclipsed the manufacturer of that old-fashioned peeler.
My uncle and aunt were pleased as punch with their hand-saving peeler. They showed it to everyone at their holiday table. Given the opportunity, they would have been thrilled to share their insight with the peeler producer — had the company only looked for feedback from its customers.
Types of customer-innovators
In Four Innovation Insights Only Customers Can Provide, Hutch Carpenter cites research conducted by Donna Hoffman, Praveen Kopalle and Thomas Novak about identifying customer who can help develop new product concepts. According to Carpenter, customer-innovators can be divided into four categories:
- Job-to-be-done customers
- Emergent customers
- Lead users
- Creative customers
Job-to-be-done customers represent the bulk of the users of any product. As their name suggests, these customers are outcome-oriented. They are not actively involved in thinking about how to build better mousetraps — they simply want to accomplish their goals quickly and effectively. Getting feedback from these customers can give businesses important insight into how to increase customer satisfaction with existing products. Because job-to-be-done customers focus on the job, rather than the product, it is important to actively solicit feedback on how the product might help them get jobs done faster, better or more easily.
Emergent customers excel at envisioning how concepts can be further developed to make them more attractive to the market and more successful — just like my uncle’s rubber (band)-handled peeler. These customers are open to new experiences and ideas, rational thinkers, creative and optimistic. To get the most benefit from your emergent customers, it is critical to encourage them to give feedback as they use your product, in a way that leads them to reflect on their experiences and add their own ideas.
Lead users are doers who alter or adapt products to meet emerging needs. More active than emergent customers, they often anticipate needs that the larger marketplace has not yet identified and find ways to adapt existing products to address them. The ideas that lead users develop are significantly more novel than those developed by other users and have greater potential to grow into product lines with high market share. In all likelihood, it was a lead user who, experiencing the noise of boomboxes on urban streets in the 1970’s, realized that shrinking a cassette player and adding earphones would create a new market for portable personal audio devices. The sales of billions of portable personal cassette and CD players, MP3 players and even smartphones stem from that one insight from a very smart lead user.
The final type of customer-innovator is the creative customer. True to her name, she is a real innovator, but also a divergent thinker. Creative customers repurpose existing products in novel — and sometimes puzzling — ways. Think of your college roommate who built a coffee table from beer cans, and you have your creative thinker. It is not always clear how businesses can leverage the insights of creative customers, other than to generate publicity for their products. On the other hand, creative customer-style ideas sometimes pay off, as it did for a smart entrepreneur who made a fortune producing faux milk crates after seeing creative customers use stolen milk crates as supports for book shelves.
Gather and apply innovative ideas
Your customer base undoubtedly includes all four types of customer innovators. In order to capture their insights to advance your business, its critical to establish proactive methods of gathering their feedback about your products or services. Emergent customers, lead users and creative customers are all highly engaged with innovation and, like my uncle, are happy to share their ideas with friends, family and, via social media, the world-at large. Be sure that your customers know that you are interested in their insights and appreciate them so that your business, and not a competitor, is first-to-market with product enhancements as well as new products.
Implementing fail-proof systems for delivering feedback — even out-of-the-box ideas from creative customers — to the proper department or individual is equally important. Make sure your feedback solution reliably routes feedback to decision makers in real time. Wouldn’t you hate to be the product manager at XYZ Kitchen Tools who spends his remaining days saying, “Yeah, some guy told me he was wrapping rubber bands around a peeler, but I assumed he was nuts”?
When it comes to your products, customers are the truest experts and most engaged, creative and valuable source of innovation. By establishing an open dialog with engaged customers, you can ensure that your company — and not your competitors — reap the benefits of that expertise.