Let your customers in
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Let your customers in

If the customer is always right, why not use their input to help guide your innovation? Here are some tips for using their help in a constructive way – and some words of warning.

Collaboration can result in fresh thinking. Letting a greater number of individuals contribute to an innovation project means bringing in ideas drawn from their own unique experiences. So why not open it up to as diverse a range of people as possible, by letting your customers contribute?

In theory, it’s an excellent idea. But there are a lot of pitfalls inherent in this. Online polls, for example, are risky if you work for a well-known organisation. These polls can be hijacked, making your brand look silly.

The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), the UK's leading public funder of environmental science, decided to allow the public to come up with a name for its new £200 million polar research vessel. The leading suggestion in the online polls? Boaty McBoatface. Or take a look at the trouble Mountain Dew experienced with hackers after the company tried to crowdsource names a new soft drink back in 2012.

Furthermore, you don’t want to annoy loyal customers – for example, with pop ups on your website asking for feedback that interrupt their browsing experience.

Here are a few suggestions for getting customer input in the right way, to help your customers make a positive contribution:

  1. Henry Ford reputedly said: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Take this into account by asking customers what problems they need you to solve, or for suggestions on how to solve them, rather than asking them for ways to improve an existing product or service.
  2. Use social networks. Your organisation’s followers on, say, Facebook are a resource that’s just waiting to be tapped into – but remember that this is a self-selected group, not a representative sample. Your wider customer base may include people with very different ideas about what kind of innovation they would like to see.
  3. Ask the experts. Not every kind of customer will be helpful for innovation – you want to talk to the people who are using the company’s product or service in the most demanding conditions.
  4. Encourage co-creation. Procter & Gamble launched its effective collaborative innovation initiative 15 years ago, and examines and responds to every idea submitted through the programme’s website – a large proportion of products launched by the firm now originate externally.
  5. Organise feedback. A product such as Trello could help to prevent information falling through the organisational cracks, ensuring that potentially valuable innovations are actioned.
  6. Put feedback to the test. The inaccuracy of self-reporting has long been known to psychologists; examining customer behaviour is a good way to check whether the information they have given you has been affected by bias or the desire to please the researcher by telling them what they want to hear. 

    What do your customers’ actions tell you about what they really want? Do the kinds of complaints the company typically receives match up with the problem areas identified in your surveys? Is there an important difference between what they think about the subject, intellectually, and how they feel about it?

  7. Prioritise the response: there are predictable answers when you ask customers what they want from your product or service; they’re likely to suggest that they want it to be faster, cheaper, easier to use, for example. Technology has also made it easier for people to share their opinions. However, not everything is valuable. You have limited budget and time – it’s up to marketers to prioritise, figuring out which innovations would be most valuable for the business.

Rob Coston Reporter CPL
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