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Should You Innovate With Your Customers or Not? Part 1

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Should You Innovate With Your Customers or Not? Part 1

To what extent should innovators listen to customer ideas and suggestions while innovating? There is an interesting debate in the innovation domain between proponents and opponents of involving customers in innovation endeavors and of following their ideas. Today, let’s first hear from each camp, then explore different contextual situations that may influence the arguments of either side and finally propose some possible solutions to reconcile the different views.

The Pro camp: Why customer involvement in innovation is beneficial

Lou Rossi, the Chief Commercial Officer at the marketing and advertising group Publicis, argues that “More than 50 percent of innovation comes from the voice of the customer.” If he’s right, we’d better embrace our customers’ ideas and feedback, just like they do it at Stew Leonard’s and Ingersoll Rand.

Stew Leonard’s is a family-owned regional US chain of experiential farm-fresh grocery stores. One reason behind the stores’ phenomenal success is that it is excessively customer-centric, as best expressed by its simple company policy (“Rule 1: The customer is always right. Rule 2: If the customer is ever wrong, reread Rule 1”). But there’s another success secret — the family business’s continuous improvement initiatives based on customers’ ideas:

From its early days, Stew Leonard’s has involved customers and their ideas in their efforts to making its stores better. At Stew Leonard’s, customer suggestion boxes are filled to the brim every day. Moreover, customers volunteer their Saturday afternoons for participating in focus groups in which they suggest their ideas on how to make Stew Leonard’s stores better.

The owners of the family business described the secret behind Stew Leonard’s growth as follows: “It’s all about listening to the customers and doing what they say.” When they give customers what they want, they see that Stew Leonard’s acts upon their ideas, and tell their friends about it.

Involving customers in innovation also seems to work well for innovation initiatives targeting the upgrade of existing products and services. In their book In Search of Excellence, Tom Peters and Robert Waterman tell the tale of a successful product upgrade innovation story involving Ingersoll Rand, an American industrial tool-maker. One of the firm’s leading tool distributors challenged Ingersoll-Rand to develop a more innovative grinder tool within a year—or they’d sign up a competitor to distribute their tools:

In the early stages of the project, the innovation team visited end-users of their grinders to observe first-hand how they interacted with their tools. To their surprise, they spotted that the workers looked like medieval warriors. They were wearing body armor and helmets to protect all their upper body parts and had wrapped tape around their tool-holding hands to prevent their fingers from accidentally slipping into the grinding surface spinning at 7,000 rpm. The innovation team also interviewed their “real customers,” the workers who, while not purchasing the tool, have to hold it 8 hours each workday to grind off metal edges from molded parts.

The insights that the team gained exploring the harsh lives of their “real customers” informed the subsequent ideation and development process. The decisive criterion of whether to include an idea in the final product was: “Does this feature make end-users’ lives better?”

Finally, when the team tested the new product prototype with some workers, one of them commented: “The tool is really okay. But you know what? Now my hands don’t hurt anymore in the evening.” And the Ingersoll-Rand team knew that thanks to involving customers in the new product development process, they had a winner.

The Contra side: Why customer involvement in innovation is not advisable

Henry Ford famously said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” The inventor of the moving assembly line rightly highlights that when you ask customers, they tend to suggest ideas that reflect their current needs and what they feel comfortable with, and rarely constitute more radical departures from the established status quo. But as the anonymous quote goes, “True innovation is coming up with a product that the customer didn’t even know they needed.”

Opponents of deeper customer involvement in innovation efforts such as Apple’s Steve Jobs argue that customers often lack intimate knowledge of what is technologically possible and feasible:

In Leander Kahney’s book Inside Steve’s Brain, Apple’s former CEO John Sculley relates that while always focusing on the customer experience, Steve Jobs didn’t believe in going out to do consumer testing and asking people what they wanted. Why? “How can I possibly ask someone what a graphics-based computer ought to be when they have no idea what a graphics-based computer is? No one has ever seen one before,” argued Steve Jobs.

Jobs also gave further rationales of why he doesn’t want to involve customers in innovation projects aiming for a disruptive “new to the world”-tech product (such as the iPod, the iPhone or the iMac): “We have a lot of customers, and we have a lot of research into our installed base. We also watch industry trends pretty carefully. But in the end, for something that complicated, it’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

Steve Jobs was not the only CEO of a technology company that didn’t believe in listening to customers’ ideas while creating disruptive high-tech products—another one was Akio Morita, one of the Co-Founders of Sony Corporation:

“Our plan is to lead the public with new products rather than ask them what kind of products they want”, writes Morita in his autobiography Made in Japan. “The public does not know what is possible, but we do. So instead of doing a lot of market research, we refine our thinking on a product and its use and try to create a market for it by educating and communicating with the public. Sometimes a product idea strikes me as a natural. As an example, I can cite a product that surely everybody knows of, the Walkman.”

The Sony Walkman sold more than 400 million times even though market research surveys suggested customers didn’t want such a technology. Customers couldn’t envision the finished product offering a small device playing music for personal use. Interestingly, Morita had to personally push his product idea into the market even against the vocal opposition of his product development team, and Sony’s marketing and finance departments. “Nobody openly laughed at me, but I didn’t seem to be convincing my own project team, although they reluctantly went along,” noted Morita.

What are other counterarguments of opponents of listening too much to customers’ ideas in innovation?

  • Customers may have unrealistically high expectations of what they want or need. Or at the other end of the spectrum, they may satisfy with a way too low solution given what’s already possible. This is because often they don’t carefully follow emerging trends and know what’s state-o-the-art in a particular product niche, category, or industry.
  • Customers may also lack more profound domain expertise and experiences to give more discriminative feedback.
  • Customers may represent a wide spectrum of diverse customer types. The few you survey, interview, or invite to focus group may not be a representative sample of your “average customer”. Following the advice of a few “odd users” who don’t align with the majority may lead you down a wrong pathway. They might encourage you to design a product that pleases the needs of a few (sampled) while ignoring most needs of the many (not part of your sample).
  • In a small project team, it is easy to preserve secrecy about a “new to the world”-innovation you’re working on. When you involve customers here, it is likely that at least one of them intentionally or accidentally leaks information to the press, followers, and competitors.
  • Finally, listening too much to your customers’ ideas will blur your thinking if you are a creator who insists upon originality. For example, Steve Jobs believed that outstanding creativity in the arts and technology could not flow if you ask people what they want.

Interim conclusion: There seems to be more than one truth

In the debate on whether to involve customers in innovation efforts and act upon their ideas or not, both sides seem to have good arguments and success cases. So which camp is right? And how to possibly reconcile the different views? Come back to this column in two weeks. Then, we will continue the debate by considering different contextual situations in innovation that may tip the balance to one side or the other.

  • Are you a proponent or opponent of customer involvement in innovation and following customers’ ideas? Why? And do you have any other good arguments that support your side of the debate?
  • Do you plan to do an innovation project soon? Do you consider involving your customers in the effort or not? Please take a look at our X-IDEA innovation method that we use to guide our clients towards innovation results. And contact us if you would like to learn more about how we may help you with your concrete innovation project.

© Dr. Detlef Reis 2020.



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