When I started working in innovation consulting, about a decade ago, my job was to import the idea of customer-centricity into big companies. Not as easy as it sounds. I often found resistance, in two specific areas.
First: Going outside and talking with customers. Organizational leaders often assumed a paternalistic attitude, saying things such as: “We know what is best for our customers.” They were ready to invest in their R&D team to develop new products and services … but refused to spend a dime to more deeply understand their customers.
Second: Prototyping. Putting an unfinished product in front of customers was, to many executive minds, a brilliant way to kill a brand. Almost no one, at any level in these organizations, was ready to take on that risk.
Today, the challenges of customer-centricity are quite different. I regularly collide with a completely opposite mindset. Organizations detour miles out of their way to talk with customers about every little thing. They want customers to answer (too many) questions! They want customers to give them their product specs! They almost want them to build their services!
While I appreciate the evolving attitude—it has made my life a lot easier as I continue to work with clients—it has also created two real customer-centricity challenges.
Customers don’t know what they don’t know. Today’s fawned-over customers answer questions based only on the information they have at hand. They don’t know how a new product might affect them in the future and aren’t extremely interested in thinking about it (we’re obsessed by it). Take, for instance, the Swiffer. With this project, we went into people’s homes, talked to them about cleaning, and observed their habits. No one spelled out the idea of the Swiffer to us; we learned, by observation, that cleaning the mop takes more time than cleaning the floor—and that everyone was looking for an in-between clean, something that’s quick and easy. These insights led us to come up with Swiffer, with its simple design and disposable cleaning pads.
The product or service can become an unmanageable behemoth. People have a tendency to say yes to every feature, tool, and solution a company puts in front of them. And in an attempt to solve all the problems, organizations can end up with a product or service that is a collection of features. The ideal embodiment of this is, of course, The Homer—a vehicle that is described with comic precision as: “Powerful like a gorilla but soft and yielding, like a Nerf ball.”
The best way to solve these challenges is to talk with customers. Yes, talk with them, but in a structured, mindful, and empathic way. Spend time understanding the whole person, observing their behavior, living in their shoes to find the problem rather than trying to verify the problem. Let customers be your inspiration, not your guide. Once you have collected raw data from your ride-alongs, shop-alongs, in-context interviews, take a step back, squint at the information, and try to make sense out of it. There is a phase of analysis that helps us uncover meaningful problems to solve. Too many organizations rush to ideation once learning is completed, missing the crucial analysis phase.
The other dramatic shift I’ve seen is in organizational comfort levels in putting an unfinished product in front of customers. This has happened mainly because of acceptance of testing and the faster pace of digital development. But just because you can build it does not mean you should build it. (Companies need to be more responsible when it comes to this.) The problem is true of prototypes as well as for products or services that are already in the market. There are two things you can do to prevent issues here:
Get Targeted Feedback. Avoid gathering feedback from every avenue possible. Yes, it’s a general human tendency to assume that more feedback is good. But I can assure you that won’t necessarily be the case. Be thoughtful about who you ask for feedback. Gathering feedback from experts in adjacent fields is a great way to expand your learning. For the Future of Parenting project with Fisher-Price, we talked with many authorities, including many early childhood development experts and futurists. This helped us develop a point of view about how these two areas might play together. We believe strongly in networked innovation because: “In our relentlessly connected age, it makes sense to realize that your capabilities can and should be augmented by those people with whom you’ve developed relationships.”
Establish Desirability Criteria. You don’t need to act on every piece of feedback you receive. Develop some desirability criteria, some key factors that are representative of customer needs. Filter all the feedback through these criteria, and act on things that remain. This helps maintain the intent and purpose of the product or service. In our work with the Boston Planning & Development Agency, for instance, we spoke to numerous stakeholders and learned to filter all that information into four areas: Engage Communities, Implement New Solutions, Partner for Greater Impact, and Track Progress.
Every organization understands that they must be customer centric, if they want to grow. But few get the idea that they need to be intentional in the way they interact with and learn from customers. Our recommendation: get smart in your customer-centricity!