Why You Should Bring Customers into the Innovation Process


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Many corporations spend years working and reworking their systems in order to maximize efficiency. They struggle with innovation as it disrupts these stable systems, causing turmoil and conflict. For many companies, innovation is not a practice to be embraced, but a problem to be avoided or a burden to be endured.

Yet innovation is essential to meeting current and future needs and establishing the long-term health of the corporation. So how can corporations maximize the benefits of innovation and execute new ideas smoothly? By involving the customer — it is with and through customers that true breakthroughs occur.

How Can This Improve the Customer-Brand Relationship?

Each time a customer chooses to engage with a company, it’s an opportunity to build brand capital. By creating innovation processes that place the customer experience at the heart of the effort, companies are creating deep, powerful interactions with the very people they work to please. As Peter Drucker said, “The purpose of business is to create and keep a customer.” It is through highly participatory efforts that companies accomplish that goal.

The key to an increased level of customer engagement and loyalty is building a trusting relationship. Trust is built through a consistent demonstration of a willingness to listen, respond, and partner with customers to improve their experiences. By inviting them to share what they think and feel about their experiences, companies can develop a platform for trust that grows brand loyalty over time.

A word of warning: Be careful not to practice “seagull” involvement. Don’t “fly” into the customer’s environment, making demands, and then leave the moment you get what you want.

Make them feel heard by slowing down the pace of communication in order to enter into meaningful dialogue. Conduct ongoing experiments to develop a consistent supply of information. Bank of America’s Keep the Change program was launched after watching people pay bills in their homes. In this kind of experiment, you can observe the customer in order to build highly personal questions. This allows you to learn about customers’ experiences and desires while also helping them feel valued.

How Do You Involve the Customer?

The key to involving the customer is to craft engagements that enable you to observe customers as they experience the problem. The experiment should be broad enough to allow you to discover areas of unexpected value and narrow enough to make the topic manageable, ensuring you solve a real problem.

One way to achieve this goal is by identifying analogous situations. For example, healthcare workers seeking to improve emergency room performance might consider observing another high-performing team under stressful circumstances — a NASCAR pit crew. Another method is placing yourself or other members of your organization in the role of the customers in order to experience their frustrations.

A large hotel chain recently conducted research to clarify their understanding of the guest experience. They had previously assumed that the most critical point of the guest experience was check-in and had invested large amounts of time, energy, and money toward refining that aspect. But their experiment revealed that the most critical part was actually the moment immediately after a guest opens the hotel room door and “discovers” the room. This observation created a multitude of insights about how to better please — and impress — their guests.

Without innovation, none of these examples would exist. Yes, it causes a little disruption, but it’s essential for growth, meeting customers’ needs, and the future stability of your corporation. If you want systems that are actually secure and will remain that way through cultural and economic changes, make room for innovation and remember your customers lie at its heart.

Drew Marshall
Andrew (Drew) C. Marshall is the Principal of Primed Associates, an innovation consultancy. He lives in central New Jersey and works with clients across the U.S. and around the world. He is a co-host of a weekly innovation-focused Twitter chat, #innochat; the founder, host, and producer of Ignite Princeton; and a contributor to the Innovation Excellence blog. He is also providing support for the implementation of the Design Thinking for Scholars model with the Network of Leadership Scholars (a network within the Academy of Management).


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