Opening the Customer Innovation Floodgates

Are you giving your members what they want – or what you want them to want? Every day, companies introduce products, improve processes and “revolutionize” services in ways that fall flat. What goes wrong? Often, innovations fail to address actual customer problems – or they do so in ways that people don’t like. How do you build customer input into the process, so you don’t end up throwing a party to which no one will come? “Companies from BMW to Kraft have invested a good deal in soliciting ‘open innovation’ ideas from consumers,” researchers Andrew Stephen, Peter Pal Zubcsek and Jacob Goldenberg write on the Harvard Business Review blog, “but the results have been underwhelming. Of more than 23,000 ideas gathered by Dell’s Idea Storm site, only 2 percent have been put to use, and Starbucks has implemented an even smaller fraction of the 200,000 suggestions submitted to My Starbucks Idea (including 6,000 ideas for new varieties of Frappuccino).” Smaller organizations face a slightly different set of challenges. Here are a few considerations if you’re thinking about using customer input to inform your business in 2016:
  • Be active about soliciting ideas. Simply building a mechanism for customers to use to submit suggestions is a grand start – and a giant leap from where many smaller organizations are now. But also consider incentivizing feedback or running contests to encourage people to participate.
  • Build a system for managing information. Jacob Morgan, author of The Future of Work: Attract New Talent, Build Better Leaders, and Create a Competitive Organization, suggests using employee input first to create a process for gathering and interpreting information. “It’s crucial to start with employee innovation to build out the proper infrastructure to receive, manage, implement, and communicate ideas to a customer base,” Morgan writes on Forbes.com. Even if you don’t start with employees, do start with a plan. Dropping the ball after soliciting customer input is far worse than never asking for input in the first place.
  • Learn Design Thinking. This approach, championed by innovation firm OpenIDEO, was the basis for the THINK Prize 15/Financial Empowerment Challenge, which attracted close to 15,000 visitors to OpenIDEO’s collaborative platform, more than 500 active participants and nearly 2,500 on-line comments and contributions to team efforts. Design thinking builds customer input into the innovation process so that new ideas don’t form in a vacuum.
 Final bit of advice: Apply liberally. When you innovate new ways to incorporate customer insights into anything you do, everybody wins. Changing to meet the needs of an evolving marketplace is not only critical this year: It’s eternally so. In your eagerness to change, don’t overlook the need to meet actual needs – and to do everything possible to elucidate those needs as you go.