How to Generate Innovative Ideas Technique:Listen to Your Customers
Overview:Most businesses try to do this, but many don’t do it effectively. Here are some tips.

How Many Ways Are You Getting Input From Your Customers?

Every business knows that customer input can be valuable for improving your products (or services), and for identifying opportunities for new products and services.  Customer input can be a very fast and low-cost way to generate ideas for new products.

How effective is your company at extracting this valuable information?

Here are five different ways to get input from your customers.  How many of them are you using?

1) Have your salespeople get direct customer input

This is the most commonly used method to get customer input, but most companies don’t utilize this approach effectively.  Every one of your salespeople should have a written list of questions that they ask at the end of every sales call.  A well-scripted set of questions can elicit a treasure trove of valuable input.

To get you started, here are suggestions for questions to ask. You should tailor this list to your unique circumstances.

  • What products or services can you see us offering that we don’t offer now?
  • What products or services do you get from other suppliers that you think could be better?
  • What new features could we add to our existing products or services that would make them more helpful for you?
  • What can we do to make our business serve you better?
  • Is there a product or service you wish you could get that nobody is offering?
  • Does your company have plans for expansion into new areas?  Is there something we could offer to help with your expansion?

Most customers appreciate the opportunity to provide this kind of input.  They will feel like you value their opinion.  And if you modify a product or develop a new product as a result of their comments they will be positively predisposed to the new product.


2)Talk to ex-customers

Losing a customer is painful – but it can also be a source of valuable information that can help you innovate. Always interview ex-customers to find out why they left. Quite often, the first reason they give will not be the real or the only reason. When interviewing an ex-customer, employ “polite persistence” to get the real reason(s) for their departure. Be sure to ask questions that explore the following.

  • Competition
    • Did you find a similar product or service for a better price?
    • Did you find a different product or service that is better for you?
  • Internal factors
    • Are there shortcomings in the quality or features of our product or service?
    • Do we need to do better in after-sales service and support?
    • Do we need to change how we interface with you?
  • Customer issues
    • Are there changes at your company that make our product/service no longer viable for you?
  • Market issues
    • Are there changes in the market that make our product less attractive? Is there something we can do to address those market changes?

Keep asking questions – politely but persistently – until you feel you really understand all of the reasons the customer left.  You will almost always learn something that opens a door to innovation.  And you might even earn the customer back.


3) Observe customers using your products

This can be very illuminating if done properly.  There are a few keys to getting good results from this kind of exercise

  • For this exercise, “customer” means the end user of your product(s).  In many cases, this will be a different person from the buyer.
  • Observe customers who are experienced users of your product, using the product in its normal use environment.
    • Are they using the product the way you intended or envisioned it being used? If not, what are they doing differently and why?
    • Are they making use of all the features of the product? If not, why are some features not being used? Because the users aren’t aware of the features? Or because the features are awkward to use? Or because the features aren’t useful?
  • Find some people who would be typical end users of your product, but who have never seen or used the product before. Give them your product in a typical use environment, and let them use it.
    • Make the same kinds of observations as above. More often than not, you will see confusion or frustration. When you see this, view it as an opportunity to innovate and improve.

An inviolable rule for these exercises:  You must be silent while observing.  Ideally, film the subjects while they are using your product(s) so that you aren’t even in the same room with them.  If you’re in the room with them, they’ll be tempted to ask you questions.  And if you give even a hint of an answer the exercise is tainted.

Careful observation of customers using your product(s) can yield significant insights and can provide ideas for changes and improvements to your product line.


4) Observe customers using your competitors’ products

This is directly analogous to the previous technique, but with the obvious difference that you will observe end users’ interaction with products that you compete with.  You may observe shortcomings or weaknesses in your competitors’ products that you can exploit.  This technique can be an opportunity to beat your competitors at their own game.


5) What are people saying about you?

Forget about your business for a moment….

How often do you read online reviews of a product or company?  And how often do you see a representative of the company actively respond to online reviews – good and bad?

What impression do you get about a company that responds to reviews — showing appreciation for good reviews and genuine concern for bad reviews?  How does that compare to your impression of a company that doesn’t respond to reviews at all?

A survey of online review sites indicates that only about 10% of companies actively monitor and respond to online reviews.

Assign one or two people in your organization to actively monitor online reviews of your company and your products or services.  This shouldn’t take much time – maybe 20 minutes per week.  They should respond to almost every review – expressing thanks for good reviews and reaching out to address the concerns in negative reviews.  But this is just the skin on the apple.

They should also analyze the reviews, looking for patterns that can help you improve your products or services.  What features are cited most frequently as positive?  What are the most common complaints?  Do they express frustration with the user interface?  Does the user manual confuse them?  If customers didn’t like the product, do they mention alternate products that they prefer?

If this is done well (and if you get a reasonable number of online reviews), very quickly you will have a database of valuable information that you can mine for ideas for innovation.

Every business tries to pay attention to their customers, but not all businesses do this well.  You can use these five techniques to extract valuable information from your customers that can provide new avenues for innovating.  If you would like to implement some of these techniques in your organization, please contact Clint to help you get started.