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Innovation works better when you inject the voice of the customer

Woman with megaphone shouting to a globeAs organisations adapt and innovate, they inevitably alter their products, processes and systems. Whether mid-sized or multinational, companies quite understandably focus on ensuring the effectiveness and efficiency of their operations. They launch new products, re-engineer their processes and refresh their infrastructure.  They strive for growth and continued success and are forever on the lookout for the next ‘big idea’.


Yet, an unpleasant reality can haunt the unprepared.  Often these innovative projects and initiatives end up placing too much focus internally.  They are driven by ideas that are formed in board meetings, in departmental problem solving sessions and during internal workshops.  We run innovative brainstorming sessions and come up with ideas that everyone agrees are just fantastic.  Inadvertently, and with the best of intentions, we risk ignoring the customer.  We assume that we are going to deliver something they will value — yet how much true customer input or insight have we sought?  Often the answer is “little” or “none”.


Take the following hypothetical examples:


  • Creating unnecessary complexity: Imagine a Customer Service Line that decides to improve their call handling by using a touch-tone IVR (interactive voice response) menu system. You know the type “Press 1 for sales… Press 2 for service”.  Yet they create a menu structure so complex that people either punch in random numbers or give up.  They have assumed that people value getting through to the right person the first time – whereas perhaps the customer would prefer to get through to somebody quickly!


  • Assuming we share the same needs and taste as the customer: Imagine a hotel owner who re-decorates the rooms in a ‘boutique’ style using their favourite shades of orange, red, pink and green….  Not realising that their taste is more niche than boutique.


  • Not understanding the true significance of a seemingly minor change: Imagine the IT technician that said “Let’s delay running that batch process.  A couple of days won’t hurt”.  And then found out that they had delayed the payroll process (and let’s face it we’re all customers of a payroll process – and a day late really does matter!)


Of course, some projects will be run primarily for the benefit of the business.  Perhaps we are intending to automate or streamline a process or activity to save money.  That process or activity will have a customer as well as other interested stakeholders – and we ignore them at our peril!


The antidote: Inject the voice of the customer into every initiative

In most cases, we can’t take the view of every single customer into account when making a decision.  Yet, we can often find ways of injecting the voice of the customer into the things we do and the decisions we make.  We can take time out to speak to real customers, create questionnaires and run focus groups.  We can reach out and consult with our customers and other stakeholders before we make changes.  Additionally, we almost certainly have a plethora of knowledge, information and data about our existing customers (and potential customers) that we can tap into.  Even complaints can be a rich source of data for improvement opportunities!  Pulling together customer insight from a range of sources can help enrich our decisions.  Companies that have a mature analysis and analytic capability could gain significant competitive advantage here.  Understanding our customers’ real needs (and their real wants) will help us to succeed and ensure that we innovate successfully.


It can be extremely useful to have somebody present at meetings and workshops whose role it is to inject the voice of the customer into the organisation.  This could be an internal expert who understands the customer’s perspective, and they may play the role of a ‘proxy’ customer – liaising with a wider customer and stakeholder community in the background.  They help keep us on track and ensure we don’t inadvertently cause frustration or disappointment to our customers.


In addition, ensuring that we build in the ability to pivot, tweak and change tack is important.  There’s no substitute for actually delivering a product and seeing how customers react to it – and therefore having the ability to measure success, and change course if things aren’t working well is key.


Keeping the customer close and ensuring we consider them is key.  Decision making will always be a balancing act across multiple dimensions, but we ignore our customers at our peril!



This post was brought to you by IBM for Midsize Business and opinions are my own. To read more on this topic, visit IBM’s Midsize Insider. Dedicated to providing businesses with expertise, solutions and tools that are specific to small and midsized companies, the Midsize Business program provides businesses with the materials and knowledge they need to become engines of a smarter planet.

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