Businesses live and die by the decisions that their customers (or non-customers) make each and every day. Ultimately, it’s our customers that decide whether or not our innovations are a huge success or a whopping failure. So it makes sense that when we want to identify our next big innovation success, that we first look to our customers for inspiration, as more often than not, our customers can provide us with rich and valuable clues.
Over time, I’ve been surprised to learn how few businesses speak with their customers as common practice, when it comes to driving innovation. Customer research is often side-stepped for fear that ideas will be squashed by non-visionary customers, before they’ve even got out the gate. Many people have little confidence in their customer’s ability to tell them what they need or want through customer research. I’ve heard remarks such as “but customers don’t know what they don’t know” or they might re-count the famous Henry Ford quote “if he [Henry Ford] asked customers what they wanted, they’d have said faster horses”.
And it’s true, customers often don’t know what the solution looks like and they don’t have all the answers. (Not that they won’t try to give them to us if we ask them!). Your typical customer will offer solutions that are anchored in the current market reality, which tends to lead to more obvious or incremental types of innovation. This is because, without the right questions or stimulus, customers can struggle to be more visionary, making it challenging to uncover more disruptive ideas that break with convention. In instances where we’re looking for something bigger, we often need to change the way that we interact with our customers and rather than looking to them for solutions, look to them for clues or ‘Peeve Points’. Because if there’s one thing that our customers ARE good at telling us, it’s their frustrations. And customer frustrations are one of our most compelling clues for innovation.
The first consideration when engaging with customers for inspiration, is ‘when’ in the innovation process. We say that you should engage them ‘as early as possible’. As soon as you have identified your innovation mission (i.e. the broad area that you’re focusing your innovation efforts), it’s time to get out of the office and get immersed with your customers.
In terms of ‘how’, at Inventium we encourage our clients to follow a simple three-step process of ‘Watch, Do and Ask’…..
STEP 1: WATCH
‘Watch’ is around observing your customers interacting with the category/ product/ service that you’re focusing on. This could involve watching them consume your product, observing them instore or even in their homes (in a completely legal, non-stalkerish way of course!). You’re looking for any obvious frustrations or surprising behaviours; anything that might give insight into their ‘Peeve Points’ around the current solutions.
STEP 2: DO
The next step is ‘Do’, which is about getting into the shoes of your customer and experiencing the category/ product/ service first-hand, just as your customers would. Sometimes it’s hard to empathise with customers if we haven’t been through the experience first-hand ourselves. You’ll be amazed at some of the insights and ideas that can come from doing a simple ‘Do’.
STEP 3: ASK
The final step is ‘Ask’, which is where you sit down with your customers and better understand their frustrations and ‘Peeve Points’. Here you have the opportunity to delve deeper and probe around the insights and observations that you uncovered through your ‘Watch’ and ‘Do’ steps and explore the ‘why’ behind their behaviour.
Equipped with all the learnings from your ‘Watch, Do and Ask’, you’re then in the best position possible to come up with your next big, customer-driven innovation. Because, when it comes to innovation, the trick is not to ask customers for the solutions, but instead try to understand and empathise with them and their frustrations so that YOU can then come up with ground-breaking solutions yourself.
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