Why Your Innovation Strategy Should Include Heavy Doses of Customer Input

Customers. Aren't they just wonderful? Besides indirectly paying your bills, they can be one of the most powerful product and service development tools at your disposal — if you do a good job harnessing the stream of valuable data they have to offer you, anyway.

Of course, soliciting and even begging for customer feedback is nothing new. It happens every time a cashier tells you about the survey at the bottom of your receipt right before you crumple it up and use it to store your used gum. But organizing the ways you solicit and respond to customer feedback can effect some serious, positive change in your business processes and the portfolio of products and/or services you offer. Here are a few ways that can happen:

Figuring Out the Why

The first step in your customer-courting, opinion-gathering journey is to eliminate the words "just because" from your motivations. All customer input is valuable, but companies that involve customers in their development or planning usually approach the process with specific needs, such as the following:

  1. They don't know precisely what customers want.
  2. There's internal friction regarding what customers want — a subtle but huge difference from the situation above.
  3. They're promoting a limited number of concepts to develop from a larger pool and want some insight to give them a nudge.
  4. They want to know which, if any, additional features may be useful on a product currently in development.
  5. They feel they've lost sight of their customers' needs and are developing products for themselves, instead. Essentially, they're building things an insider, with an insider's knowledge, would need.

These five options come from a list that's effectively endless. If you have a legitimate reason to think a customer's input might be useful somewhere, you're off to a good start. "Just because" rarely works, especially when important decisions are being made.

Figuring Out the How

Here's where things get a little more narrow in some ways and a lot more complex in others. In the digital era, customer input can be collected in a million ways, giving you endless options to choose from — and endless options to sift through.

Here, context can inform actions. Let's say you manufacture networking components for B2B and consumer markets. One such line of components, which is due for a rework and relaunch, features quality-of-service (QoS) solutions. Your other data-backed initiatives indicate they aren't being used as expected, but there's a larger concern: You can't tell whether it's a marketing problem, a problem with the tools themselves, or some combination of the two.

Your existing customer base should be a part of your innovation strategy here. Depending on the specifics surrounding your industry and individual business, you may choose to invite existing customers to take a quick digital survey focusing on their use of QoS technologies. You could even offer some type of small perk as a thank-you for participating. Or, you could hold a small, informal focus group — something as simple as a social media post reading, "Hey, do you guys use our quality-of-service technologies? Why or why not?" could go a long way. You could even ask relationship management or sales representatives to tactfully inquire about it when interacting with existing customers.

Any or all of these customer engagement strategies could result in serious revisions to your product line. More, the changes you implement result from information you might not have otherwise sought out at all. That's some good added value from people who already hand you cash.

Customers as Innovators

Not every business is lucky enough to have a clear-cut problem like QoS feature usage woes. Other companies have larger-scale trouble aligning what they make with what customers want. And, as before, the question isn't what to ask so much as how.

Social media is one obvious outlet on which to base an innovation strategy, provided you have enough of a following to gather opinions. Think of it as jump-starting the other most important period of customer interaction (namely, the weeks after launch). Examine activity on your various digital fronts. Ask what people want to see. This gives you data to implement and lets people know you're looking for input, the latter of which you'll find many customers are happy to provide.

If you have a large enough customer base and the resources to implement it, a design-your-own approach can also yield tons of data. The slew of promotions offering customers a chance to build their own goods — whether they're cars, video game controllers, shoes, or velociraptor containment units — opens customers up to new options and, perhaps more importantly, lets businesses know what they prefer from a given product. If many customers are picking this color or that feature, why not make it a permanent part of the line?

Other companies, especially those dealing with limited lines and high-ticket items, may also benefit from direct interaction with certain VIP customers. Inviting highly valued buyers to your facility to give input and see what you have in the works is an opportunity to learn from the people who frequent your business most. This can also be a great social media marketing and intel-gathering opportunity after the fact.

Engage, Involve, and Evolve

In some ways, the key to figuring out what customers want is as simple as asking. Sometimes, an errant social media post may be enough to help you revolutionize a product. Other times, it takes a directed, costly approach to get in a buyer's head.

Still, the end result might be worth it. If you want to build products customers want, a customer-focused innovation strategy can help you do just that — and it doesn't necessarily take a team of data scientists and big data number-crunching applications to figure out. An open ear and a genuine interest can accomplish a lot, if you let it happen.

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Evan Wade
Evan Wade Contributor

Evan Wade is an author and editor from Carmel, Indiana. As a veteran tech writer and lifelong tech enthusiast, he focuses his writing and research on communication, mobility and security. Alongside work with leading cloud technology providers and industry news sources, Evan has extensive sales and end-user marketing experience, giving him a unique view of the individual’s relationship with technology — and how organizations can realize huge benefits from it.

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