“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Whether Henry Ford actually said this is in doubt, but that’s another story – through the years, the quote has been used to sell the idea that when it comes to products, customers don’t know what they want until they see it.
Here’s the thing, though: Businesses are at least as bad at determining what their customers need as customers are, themselves. The graveyard of failed corporate initiatives is filled with products and solutions that, in spite of large investments of time and resources, gained little or no traction in the marketplace. Companies’ inability to interpret customer feedback has created too many products and services that failed to deliver — and thus deserved to fail.
This risk only increases with the degree of innovation. The further businesses lead customers from what they’re familiar with, the worse they become at knowing what those customers need.
The question, then, is how do you increase your odds of success? How do you establish product development processes such that you can rapidly change course on projects with low commercial viability in favor of those that provide real value?
The answer is to invite your customers into the product development process. Think of this as conspiring with your customers.
It’s Not Just About Feedback
Conspiring with your customers isn’t merely the process of getting their feedback, although that’s a necessary component. We advise businesses to bring customers as far into the product development lifecycle as possible, as early as possible, and to continue that involvement through each stage of the process. They should share their fears and dreams with you, and you with them. The goal is a true partnership based on trust and transparency.
This requires a shift in mindset: from developing requirements, to focusing on discovering and delivering value.
Ideally, the customer’s involvement would begin at the conceptualization of the project and would be based on an existing relationship of trust. In a best-case scenario, your organization would test a hypothesis on how a project could drive value for the client based on a problem they’ve expressed.
The Right Questions to Ask
Here’s an example of how customer involvement early in the product development lifecycle would avoid a product failure and lead to a solution that customers actually value. The solution provider in this case is a fictitious manufacturer of bottling machines primarily used in microbreweries. The company believes it can increase uptime by 12% on its machines by using real-time data analysis to tailor preventative maintenance schedules. At this stage, the manufacturer should be asking its brewery customers questions such as:
- Is uptime a problem for your company?
- If so, how big of a problem?
- Have you tried to solve this in the past?
- How did those solutions work, or why didn’t they work?
- Can you quantify the potential impact of the problem and solution in monetary terms?
- Who are the stakeholders involved in the production process?
- How does your company integrate and adopt new technology?
And here’s an array of responses the manufacturer might hear that could affect the structure of the solution:
- “We overprovision production capacity. If capacity increased on the bottling line, it would go unused unless we invested in additional fermentation tanks.”
- “Our workers are unskilled. They’d need additional training or guidance on the type of preventative maintenance you’re talking about.”
- “We’d need permission from IT before getting a system like that on our network. They have pretty strict security requirements for such systems.”
- “We schedule all our maintenance on Saturdays unless it’s an emergency that takes down the line. So, it doesn’t matter when you tell us something needs to be done; it’s not getting done until the following Saturday.”
Defining the Solution, Iteratively
The manufacturer should then use this priceless (and perhaps unexpected) information to generate a hypothesis of the solution. It should sketch out ways the system could meet all the constraints discovered in the information-gathering process, and then show that iteration to its customers to get feedback … and start to sell it to them if they are interested enough.
We advise businesses to continue this through as many iterations of hypothesis, testing and validation/adjustment as needed in order to truly understand the customer’s problems and have confidence when making the next level of investment in a solution.
As the vision for the product is clarified, a more functional version of the solution will be needed. Eventually, building it becomes iterative; the solution first becomes real, then scalable. You remain in constant communication with the customer, optimizing the solution while the cost of change is low.
Conspiring with customers isn’t a universal solution. Some will simply ask for the equivalent of faster horses, whether they truly need them or not. And the process requires new thinking on both sides, so we advise businesses to start with a situation in which trust already exists — typically with a longtime client.
Under the proper circumstances, pulling the customer into the loop as early as possible leads to better solutions, fewer blind alleys and increased value for both parties.
This blog was adapted from the original post that appeared on the Bright Wolf website (a Cognizant company).
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