At the 2014 HYPE Innovation Managers Forum in Bonn, I hosted a roundtable that looked at Involving Customers in the Innovation Process. There were over a dozen different corporations represented in the discussion. To spur the conversation, I mapped the points for customer involvement as:
- What customers want (jobs-to-be-done)
- Ideas (open innovation)
- Feedback on options (collaborative design)
As the roundtable went along, many good points were made on those fronts. And then, an idea out of left field was proposed...
Why not have customers review ideas?
Which proceeded to run havoc with my nice, prepared framework of where customers can be involved. My new flow of customer involvement became something like this:
This roundtable itself was a great example of opening your mind to new ideas. I asked the participants their thoughts about this suggestion. Was it scary to contemplate having customers evaluate ideas? Many raised their hands in the affirmative. Which is understandable, any radical idea should feel scary.
But let's de-scarify this concept. If you were to have customers review your internal ideas, what are the key considerations? Here are five:
- Differentiating from focus groups
- Profile of right customers to involve
- Type of ideas
- Ways to engage customers in the evaluation process
- What criteria make sense?
Differentiating from focus groups
Focus groups have been used for a long time by companies, especially those in the Consumer Packaged Goods industry. In a focus group, several people are gathered into a room to review prototypes of new products. They're asked about the features they see, price points, interest in purchasing, etc.
Focus groups are fine for what they are: feedback on an already-selected internal idea. That feedback is valuable, and it's more aligned with the 'collaborative design' activity in the graphic above. But it's not the same as evaluating ideas, on three counts:
- It's after the idea has been selected
- It tends to be narrowly focused on the features that are seen
- It's limited to products
Focus groups are a form of customer evaluation, but it differs from having customers review ideas.
Profile of right customers to involve
Imagine yourself identifying customers you would want to invite to help evaluate ideas. Which ones should you select? Research by professors at UC-Riverside and Dartmouth provides an answer (pdf). Bring your Emergent Customers into the evaluation process.
In their study, the professors defined Emergent Customers as having "the unique capability to imagine or envision how concepts might be developed so that they will be successful in the mainstream marketplace." In two separate field experiments, they were able to prove that customers with Emergent traits better judged how products would perform in the market. That'd be helpful in the innovation process, right?
Their research identified six traits that define Emergent customers:
In assessing customers as potential evaluators, these traits provide guidance for selection criteria.
Types of ideas
An organization will generate many types of ideas. But not every idea necessarily is appropriate for customer evaluations. For example, an internal cost-cutting initiative likely has few ideas that would be shown to customers. Nor would one where employees are asked to challenge orthodoxy, which might air some dirty laundry.
But some types of ideas are obvious candidates for getting customers' perspectives:
- Customer service
- Increasing knowledge about the company's offerings
- Pricing bundles
Basically, anything that addresses a job-to-be-done of your customers. If it directly affects their experience, an idea is appropriate for customer evaluations.
Ways to engage customers in the evaluation process
In the roundtable, we discussed the logistics of having customers do the evaluations. In a typical internal process, there are two modes for experts to evaluate ideas. In the team evaluation mode, the experts come together (in the same room, or via conference call) and assess each idea together. In the individual evaluations mode, each expert separately does an evaluation.
Would you have customers in the room for team evaluations? Perhaps. Depends on the ideas, and the comfort of the experts in working closely with customers.
The group of corporate innovation executives at the roundtable advised that a customer evaluation process would be done separately from any evaluations done by internal experts. Two ways to approach this:
- Customer evaluations happen in parallel to the expert evaluations. This allows decision-makers to have all the information at once.
- Customer evaluations follow expert evaluations. This focuses customers on only those ideas that have met a threshold of feasibility for the company.
The best way to have customers do the evaluations would seem to be in an interview style. Depending on them to complete a review on their own might be a push, as it can be with internal experts who are on the company payroll!
What criteria make sense?
It would not make sense to have customers evaluate on the more common criteria often used internally by organizations. Internal criteria might include: size of market, technical feasibility, resources required, etc.
Those are not the criteria that matter to customers. And indeed, plugging into customers' mentality offers fresh ways of thinking about ideas in an outside-in context. Here are some example criteria that would make sense for customer evaluations:
- How important is the targeted job-to-be-done (of the idea) to me
- Degree of improvement over the current way I address the job-to-be-done
- How much would the idea change my desire to use the company/product/service
The criteria for customer evaluations should differ from what is used for internal reviews. Although, arguably, even internal evaluations should incorporate elements of jobs-to-be-done. But customers are generally going to be better positioned to assess based on..what they themselves value.
Just make sure you're bringing Emergent Customers into the evaluation process.
Once you break it down, the concept of having customers review internal ideas seems less far-fetched than it does initially. If the idea catches your curiosity, give it a try on limited, low key basis. See how customers both (i) react to the invitation; and (ii) assess the ideas.