As the customer advocate, you work closely with employees to keep customers at the forefront of innovation. You want your employees to innovate with the customer in mind. Your team, unit, division, and even enterprise should know what is most important to your customers. They need to understand which problems, if solved, would have the greatest positive impact. These insights can become the inspiration sparks of your group’s creative thinking.
Begin with the End
Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon, is well-known for advocating, “Start with the customer and work backwards.” Six years ago, when Amazon sold primarily print books, company research showed that customers liked e-books—a new product that threatened Amazon’s core business. Bezos took a strong stand that the company must not create a business strategy designed only to protect their existing business when their customers clearly wanted something else. He demanded his people do just the opposite—create what customers wanted and find a way to build a business around it. They did just that, and by 2011, e-books sales surpassed sales of print books. In fact, by April 2011, Amazon became the world’s largest e-book retailer.
Bezos consistently took a stand for customers even when it led to controversy inside the company. For example, Amazon developed a system to enable competitors to sell on its website, even when competitors offered cheaper prices. Each product page shows Amazon’s price for new merchandise, other retailers offering the same products—often at cheaper prices, and even individuals selling used products at extremely low prices. This decision cut into Amazon’s sales, but it also brought more customers to the site and kept customers coming back to buy more products through Amazon overall. Now Amazon, is known not only as an online product retailer, but as an open marketplace where customers can find full information on products they might want to buy. They can find product reviews—whether positive or negative, can post their own reviews, can interact with other customers, and can even sell their used products back to others. Amazon created their marketplace from the customers’ point of view, and customers keep coming back.
The Strong Customer Advocate
The strong customer advocate knows the landscape, keeps customers top-of-mind, represents the “voice of the customer”, sets expectations around customer value, supports open innovation with customers, and keeps future customers in mind. As the customer advocate, you’ll need consistent habits that help you:
- Stay informed about customer satisfaction and the competitiveness of your offerings.
- Bring the “voice of the customer” into the decision making and idea generation.
- Set the expectation that creating customer value is everyone’s job.
- Support staff to engage in open innovation with customers.
How to Connect with Customers
Strong innovation usually emerges from collaborative, hands-on or observational experiences that take place on the front lines with customers. With today’s technology, you can connect with customers online as well as in-person. It’s important that you do both. Here are a few examples to consider:
- Field visits: Consider visiting a few of your customers at their location to see how they use your products and services every day.
- On-site gatherings: Invite customers and prospects to your site to test new products, provide feedback on existing products, and for idea generation.
- User groups: Hold user group meetings where ideas are shared and feedback is welcomed.
- Social media: Participate in social media by asking questions, commenting and engaging with your fans. You can also use social media to research and identify hot topics and trends.
- Forums and groups: Join online forums and groups where ideas and complaints related to your products or services are shared. You’ll be surprised at what people use your products for that you may not have considered.
- Review sites: Read what people are saying about you and your competitors and note both pros and cons. Then look at products and services that aren’t directly in your niche, but rather complementary. Where are they headed in research and development? The more you know about industry trends, the better.
- Crowdfunding sites: View the latest gadgets launching in your niche on sites like Kickstarter or Indiegogo. Don’t just look at the successful launches. Review the unsuccessful ones too.
There are so many ways to connect with customers online, in-person, directly and indirectly. Use multiple methods to find the ones that work best for you.
Listen to Your Customers
When you give customers a chance, they will tell you what they value most. They will let you know in great detail what is broken and what is high on their wish list. Listen to them and work with them to make them happy. But don’t rely only on them to create the future roadmap for your product or service. That’s your role as direction setter and customer advocate, and the responsibility of your team. Customers often don’t know what they don’t know.
Henry Ford once said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.”
Meeting the needs your customers identify for you may seem like the safest way to go, until a competitor arrives with a radically different and improved offering. Once your customers see what is possible, they will demand it. You don’t want to be caught in the risky game of playing catch-up or trying to get out of the commodity trap. Part of being an effective customer advocate is to push the innovation envelope and stay in front of your customers and competitors.
Having a system in place to capture ideas from customers and customer-facing employees is perfect for storing and retaining ideas over time. In the next installment of the Leading Innovation series, we’ll dive deep into systems and processes with the architect leadership role. If you’d like to skip ahead, you can download the entire chapter today.
This blog post is part of the Leading Innovation series authored by Laszlo Gyorffy, MS. Laszlo is president of the Enterprise Development Group, an international consulting firm specializing in business strategy and innovation. He also is an accomplished speaker, certified instructional designer and trainer, and co-author of Creating Value with CO-STAR: An Innovation Tool for Perfecting and Pitching your Brilliant Ideas and The Global Innovation Science Handbook. Laszlo recently developed the One Hour Innovator a cloud-based toolkit that teaches people how to successfully generate and champion bigger, bolder, and better ideas.