CAREER DEVELOPMENT / FEB. 23, 2015
version 5, draft 5

How to Turn Customer Input Into Innovation

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In today’s business world, it’s hard to find a company that doesn’t strive to be customer-driven. Many companies approach the process of listening to their customers in the wrong way. This in turn negatively impacts innovation and ultimately, the bottom line. When customers are asked what they want, they outline solutions – products, features, services. Companies then deliver these tangibles, but to their disappointment, customers won’t buy. Customers do not have the required expertise to come up with solutions. This is why it is preferable to ask customers what they want a new product or service to do for them.

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Cordis Corporation managed to become a market leader in angioplasty balloons and double its revenue in two years. The company’s secret? A new approach to listening to customers. Cordis conducted an exhaustive set of interviews with industry professionals, from cardiologists to laboratory personnel, asking them what results they would like to achieve in doing their jobs, rather what features they would like to see in an angioplasty balloon.

Below, I outline the methodology used by Cordis, inspired by Anthony W. Ulwick’s article in Harvard Business Review. Use it to turn customer input into an innovative product:

#1. Plan Outcome-based customer interviews

As a first step, you should plan outcome-based interviews to define the process or activity related to the product or service. Cordis for instance set out to define each step of the angioplasty process. Next comes the selection participants. It is advisable to narrow down your search for interviewees to specific groups of people who use the product. It is also important to include a diverse set of individuals, with varied experience, from different age groups and areas. This will help you to capture a more comprehensive set of outcomes.

#2. Capture desired outcomes

During the interview, the focus of the moderator should be on the process or activity that users go through when using a product or service. It’s the moderator’s job to filter out outcomes from solutions, and set aside vague statements, anecdotes or other irrelevant information. So when someone talks about something that sounds like a solution, the moderator should direct the informant towards the underlying process so as to ensure that all the steps are sufficiently covered. 

After that, the moderator proceeds to translate some loosely-defined ideas into a more concrete outcome. For example in the case of Cordis, cardiologists told the moderator that they wanted a balloon that is “easy to maneuver”, “smooth” and “stiff”. As a moderator, you need to probe these vague definitions by asking respondents why for example they want a device to be easy to maneuver? The answer to this question should help you document the desired outcome.

#3. Organise the outcomes

After the interview, list all collected outcomes, remove duplicates and classify the outcomes into groups based on each step in the process of the product or service. In the end, you will create a useful customer information database that will give you deep insights into how customers measure value.

#4. Rate outcomes for importance and satisfaction

Once you prepare the categorized list of outcomes, you must ask participants to rate each outcome in terms of its importance, and the degree to which the outcome is currently satisfied. A mathematical formula is then applied to reveal the relative attractiveness of each opportunity.

#5. Use the data to uncover opportunity areas

You are now ready to jump-start innovation by using the survey results from the previous step. Remember that the best opportunities stem from those desired outcomes that customers deem significant but are least satisfied with. See what each group of people value most so that you come up with a set of products that can cater to the different desired outcomes of each group.

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Using this outcome-based approach can be the stepping stone for gaining a leading position in the market and even expanding further to reach new markets. Most of all, it is an optimal strategy to retain your existing clients and achieve astounding results as a company. The key is to focus on what they want the products to do for them rather than what they want. 

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