Cars instead of horses: Listen to the customer’s voice to exceed expectations

Wilhelm Keller

Industry Insights

Companies that have not had a market need or internal push to overhaul their business models over the last century are finding it difficult to retroactively make up for this time now. Technology is everchanging at an unstoppable speed, barring executives and decision makers from the luxury of time to understand and adapt to customer demands uncovered in real-time through data analytics and transparency. This speed demands that new products have to directly meet the desires of our customers, often times without the ability to get it wrong; competition can outvalue your product before you can present an updated version. You may be thinking that companies focused primarily on extremely non-digital & non-end user focused businesses will never have the chance to compete, let alone catch up to the exponential growth seen today. But with the following ingredients, it is proven that it is in fact possible by implementing Customer Focused Innovation.

CFI is not about following a list of explicit customer asks and developing items on their want list

Wilhelm Keller, Digital Innovation Manager BASF

Customer Focused Innovation, or CFI, is the practice of developing new products that meet the customer needs with a faster pace than the competition. In particular, this means that you have to take the “voice of your customer” into the design process of your products and services. For those that are reading this article and think that this is just a fusion of overused buzzwords, I must admit that you are totally right. But this doesn’t change the fact that if you can really implement this approach into the culture of your company, you will succeed more often at creating valuable business models and products. CFI is not about following a list of explicit customer asks and developing items on their want list but instead about anticipating their needs and exceeding their expectations by creating new and alternative demands that they didn’t even know existed.

Henry Ford, the Founder of the Ford Motor Company and Philanthropist once said “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” In this example, customers could easily describe their problem (need for faster transportation), but they didn’t have the vision to imagine the real deal, the car. If Henry Ford had focused his energy and resources on developing a faster horse cart, transportation for the masses may look entirely different to how we see it today. Today, Ford’s innovative and risky approach to problem solving is emblematic in our startup culture.

Small and young startups who have nothing to lose take much more risk and courage in order to really disrupt business. Large, older corporations are entirely opposite, relying on the risk-adverse culture that lead to traditional business tactics to grow find it difficult to learn from these small, agile companies. As they face extinction, big corporations tend to “just take” competitive risks, where it is assumed that ideas already fit into existing markets and have potential customers. Taking a market risk in places where your new idea doesn’t have a market yet, it’s much riskier and requires more courage in comparison. Albeit these barriers, this is the only kind of innovation that will disrupt the business, leading to unexpected growth and future success. “Risk something” and really do it differently, is what brings us further and what will lead to a true competitive edge.  

Sourcing out your weaknesses

For succeeding in the above-mentioned points, it’s very important to identify your weaknesses and look for suitable solutions/partners that can compensate them and even take it to a next level. This does not mean that you should neglect your strengths, but really, you should focus on building them by sourcing out your weaknesses to partners that have more precise expert resources or intellectual capital. Particularly in Germany, where our roots go back to deep manufacturing know-how throughout industrialization times and where our culture and population is proud of the feature “Made in Germany”, it sometimes is hard to openly lay out weaknesses and ask for specific experts. Therefore, a partner doesn’t have to be a large corporation with the same deep knowledge of manufacturing but again, one that complements your weaknesses. It could be your customer who supports you with real feedback regarding the things that they really need, a startup that gives you the opportunity to shape the future with innovative products or even all of them together working on the next big thing. That’s how many successful and innovative products came to the market and it’s also one of the best ways for new products to do so.

Turning your customers into some of your best employees

A good example of this is Lego. They don’t only collaborate with big companies like Disney (Star Wars & Harry Potter), Porsche etc. to create their best sold series. They also opened their Innovation Platform “Lego Ideas”, where Lego enthusiasts submit ideas for Lego products to be turned into potential sets that are available commercially, with the original designer receiving 1% of the revenue. I mean did you ever wanted to turn your awesome Lego building into a set and even earn money with it? Who wouldn’t! One of my favorite examples for this is the letter that the seven-year-old girl Charlotte Benjamin sent to Lego in January 2014. She complained that there were more Lego boys and barely any Lego girls. She also identified that all the Lego girls were only sitting at home, at the beach, or in the shopping mall and had no real jobs. In June 2014, Lego announced that they will launch a new research institute collection featuring female scientists. These collections included a female chemist, paleontologist, and astronomer. This science-themed set was selected as the latest Lego Ideas winner, and was submitted by Ellen Kooijman, a geochemist from Stockholm. The “Research Institute” set sold out within a week after its online release in August 2014. Some will complain that Lego should have done this earlier on their own, but that’s another story. In the end, with “Lego Ideas”, they gave their customers a possibility to create the products that they actually desire and adapt in ways that they couldn’t have planned even with a room full of the smartest engineers and MBA graduates.

Author: Wilhelm Keller (views are author’s own)

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