Listening with an Ear for Innovation


Share on LinkedIn

In Alan Murray’s 8/21 Wall Street Journal article (, he mentions that when the Journal’s CEO Council was asked to name the most influential business book, many members cited Clayton Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma. What does Christensen say about innovation that is so compelling? Murray summarizes:

“That book documents how market-leading companies have missed game-changing transformations in industry after industry—computers (mainframes to PCs), telephony (landline to mobile), photography (film to digital), stock markets (floor to online)—not because of ‘bad’ management, but because they followed the dictates of ‘good’ management.

They listened closely to their customers. They carefully studied market trends. They allocated capital to the innovations that promised the largest returns. And in the process, they missed disruptive innovations that opened up new customers and markets for lower-margin, blockbuster products.”

How is it possible to listen closely to customers and still miss the game-changing trends? How can you get an understanding of market changes and be the first to capitalize on cutting-edge opportunities?

  • Ask the right questions. A waiter buzzing by your table, asking “How is your salad?” is unlikely to get responses about the long wait, the impossible parking, or snooty staff. The same can be true of your customer feedback efforts. Narrow questions lead to narrow answers. Asking broader, open-ended questions will give your customers the room to comment on what’s important to them and what may be missing in your current solution equation.
  • Talk to customers and prospects. Start with the 20% of customers who bring in 80% of your business. Since they are heavily reliant upon your products/services and your relationship, they have a lot to say. Plus, they have insight into how their marketplace is changing and what threatens their market share and margin—insights into what new markets may be emerging. (After obtaining this critical feedback, then move out to second/third–tier customers and prospects.)
  • Ask in the right way. Valued customers open up to other people—not a computer screen or piece of paper. Our experience shows that a face-to-face conversation is optimum. It’s the best way to read reactions, probe, and clarify—the best way to achieve understanding. (Save surveys for your second and third–tier customers.)
  • Understand that all feedback is not created equally. As Vince Lombardi said, “Nothing is as unfair as the equal treatment of unequals.” Some people will have greater insights than others due to their experience, their area of focus, and their personal investment in the business relationship. If you listen carefully, you can pick out the golden game-changing comment, even if it isn’t often repeated by others.

Seeing around the next corner can be tricky. Leverage your customer relationships by obtaining critical feedback to drive toward unexpected and profitable innovation.

Rhonda Sunnarborg, Senior Consultant
E.G. Insight

Rhonda Sunnarborg
Rhonda works with companies to improve the effectiveness of their business channels by addressing key questions: How do you get distributors or dealers to support your full line? How do you get more mindshare of dealer salespeople? Do you need to figure out who your end-customers are? Rhonda has more than 20 years of B2B experience working with Fortune 500 companies to change the behavior of dealers/distributors, sales people, and employees. She is a member of the Business Marketing Association and has served on the national board for Recognition Professionals International.


Please use comments to add value to the discussion. Maximum one link to an educational blog post or article. We will NOT PUBLISH brief comments like "good post," comments that mainly promote links, or comments with links to companies, products, or services.

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here