Recently I was talking with some nonprofit executives about developing and launching some new programming. The more we talked the more I became convinced that their brainstorming and planning for these new services lacked one important thing. True customer input. It got me to thinking how much more on-point products and services could be if we simply got customers involved early – and had their involvement throughout the process.
So often when we think about new products and services, we are resigned to making some level of assumption and guessing. And often most of what we know is based on our assumptions instead of real knowledge. Imagine if you could get your target customers in a room and actually ask them what challenges they face and what benefits would be most beneficial to them. Imagine if you could actually get them to helpdevelop the new products and services. Involving customers directly when you are designing or improving new products and services could dramatically improve your chances of successfully developing products/services that will make the most difference in the marketplace. A few thoughts about how to approach this.
This has to be said. If you want to involve customers in designing new products/services you have to already have good, solid relationships. A process such as this requires trust and honesty from both sides. And as you know trust and goodwill don’t just happen; they are built up over time. So, if you don’t already have a number of strong, positive customer relationships, this process will most likely not happen or succeed. My advice is to concentrate your time and efforts on improving your customer relationships first.
Develop a Brief
It’s worth taking some time up front to develop a thoughtful description of the process that you can share with prospective participants. Consider your goals and objectives. Describe whyyou are going through this process. Making sure you have clarity about this is critical.
Clearly describe the expectations for all participants. Remember, especially in a B2B situation, customer participants might be taking some time away from their jobs. If not, you need to find blocks of time that work for them. Makes sure everyone understands what the commitment will require. Be clear about the type(s) of input you will need them to provide. Is it technical, product/service characteristics, needs definition, etc.
Consider what customer participants will get from this process. Is there anything tangible that you can offer (i.e. discounts, enhanced service, ability to help mold a product or service that’s better for their usage, early access to products/services, etc.)? Some of it can and will be intangible – a simple desire to help, an intellectual curiosity, personal and/or professional growth by being involved in the product/service development progress, etc.
Don’t forget nondisclosures. I know it sounds legal-y (and it is). But often both sides might be more comfortable being completely open if they know that anything they say is privileged and won’t be shared. Yes, some might find it a bit offensive (almost accusatory), but most won’t. They will most likely understand the need for them.
Competitive information. What are they hearing from or think about competition? And who do they actually consider competitors? What other products/services are out there – and how can your organization make ones that are BETTER?
Invite The Right People
Once you’ve decided that customer involvement is the right way to go, don’t just put out a request for ANYONE to participate. Really give it some thought. Look for characteristics that you would look for in anyone you want to participate in an innovation process – creative, open-minded, willing to share ideas openly and to be constructively critical, broadly thinking (beyond just what is good for them specifically), knowledgeable. In addition, make sure that they are not only current customers, but also ones you want to serve in the future. (Yes, they canbe different.)
If possible, select a cross-section of your customer base. Different types of customers will bring differing perspectives, attitudes, and needs to the effort. Having those differences of opinion are very valuable.
And make sure you’ve identified the individuals with the information you need. It has to be someone with the industry knowledge, the technical knowledge, and the knowledge of how your product or service will be selected and used.
Using Time Wisely
It probably doesn’t need to be said, but when someone like a customer agrees to invest time and effort to help you, you have to be extremely judicious in how you use their time. Respect every minute and use their time productively. A few basic ideas:
- Clearly set expectations in advance.
- Be super-prepared for every conversation and/or meeting that you have that includes them.
- Have clear goals and agendas for every meeting.
- Keep to your schedule.
- Remember they are volunteers, not your employees. You have to remember that and treat them accordingly.
As you go through the process keep your eyes open for any customers that would be good candidates for a product/service pilot test. The tradeoff for them agreeing to be your beta-tester is that they get early access to the product, they get to help further shape the final product/service, and they get free (or greatly-reduced) pricing.
And what do you get? REAL testing in a real environment with a close, trusted partner. What a huge benefit!
So if you’ve never thought about involving customers directly in the product/service development process, I say you should consider it. It might be a little more challenging to get it off the ground and might be somewhat more challenging to manage, but the benefits greatly outweigh the costs. Give it a try!
Please feel free to reach out and get in touch and let’s explore how I can help you and your business succeed. No pressure. Just an informal discussion to explore some ideas. You can contact me on our Contact Us page, call me at (713) 907-8429, or email me at BCohen@IDiscoverConsulting.com. I hope you are enjoying these blog posts. If so, please help spread the word. Tell others about IDiscover Consulting Group and my blog. Share these posts. Comment on them. I’d really love to hear your ideas!