Innovation: Customers don’t always know what they need until you show it to them
- Written by Gerry Sweeney on May 23, 2017
There is an old saying that goes something like “the customer is always right” and if you follow that principle you cannot really go too far wrong, do what your customer wants you to and you will have a happy customer that will spend money with you. The problem with that approach though, is if you ask, all customers will want is a BIGGER, BETTER and FASTER one of what you have already provided them.
Our natural instinct is to look at the world as it is today, good or bad we understand it and we are comfortable with it – so if we can just make it better then that’s always our preference. The truth is, a safe approach like this always leads to a bad place of stagnation and boredom which is why innovation and moving forwards is so incredibly important. See this previous article I wrote on Why Innovation Matters
One of my favourite examples is the food and drink industry for preserving food, it was typical for restaurants and stores in metropolitan cities to take regular deliveries of big blocks of ice in order to keep their ice boxes cool. The companies whose business was to create and deliver the ice blocks focused on improving ice production, improving delivery and so on. But one day in the early 1900’s someone invented what we know today as a refrigerator. As it turned out, until that day people needed ice, and no one realised what they actually needed a refrigerator – that’s a fine example of innovation at work.
Innovation does not have to be ground breaking, when you boil it down, innovation is simply change for the better, and one of the biggest blockers to innovation is “CHANGE” because people don’t like change, and that explains perfectly why, when you ask your customer what they want, they will ask you for a bigger, better, faster one of the things you already have given them – improvement WITHOUT change. It is always good to remember that innovation is not just about amazing new technology or ideas, its primarily about leadership. As a leader, your job is to create the refrigerator and not to work out how to make longer lasting ice.
I was inspired to write this article because I had a recent example of exactly this. One of the features of our platform includes an e-mail interface and in observing how it worked and how our customers interacted with it, we wanted to re-design it, now this was not so much about a ground-breaking invention but it was a significant change, and as I have already mentioned, people don’t much like change. To cut a long story short, we made the change which we thought was a really big improvement, communicated and soft introduced this great new UI to our customers. One of our customers Gary (who has graciously given me permission to refer to his comments) responded to this change with the following feedback: -
I appreciate you guys are also have a new view - but I wasn't planning on changing until the very bitter end - while not wanting to be negative - the new view, nor this revised old view unfortunately offer nothing for us other than a downgrade in terms of usability and aesthetics. For me, the new view is too cluttered – I am not interested in looking at other emails while I am working through one, so the other emails just serve as a distraction, especially with the coloured icons next to each mail.
For both views with the 'additional info' pane - this is just wasting screen real estate for me as shown... we are never going to get a YouTube video sent to us via the service desk as YouTube is banned on our network, it is also not very often we would ever get a forum post or websites sent to us. So all this view is really doing for us is spreading the important information across my full screen, rather than presenting it for me in one nice section as it was before.
Ouch…. well that made us stop and think, not a good piece of initial feedback. The truth is though the UI change was a vast improvement on what was there before and we knew it, but we also got a lot of other positive feedback too; the change was a big step forward so why this feedback? Well if I have not said it enough times already, Innovation is about leadership and when innovating, as a leader you have to assume that your customers don’t yet know they need what you have created. Of course, you have to be sensitive to the fact that you can also be wrong and your customer could be right, and in those situations, you have to be willing back down too, innovation is not a free ticket to do what the hell you like, but you need to be a strong leader to Innovate well. Always listen to your customers, consult with them and learn but always drive forwards too.
Back to Gary, fast forward a few weeks, and with some constructive exchanges taking on board the sensible points that we missed and this is what he posted some weeks later.
Guys - just to say good job really on the email view stuff! - I wasn't a fan at first, but I have been using it recently, and with the extra little features that allow us to customise certain bits of it - i.e. having the additional info either within the message or the right in a separate pane. Or being able to choose whether we can see the content of the message or just the subject.
big thumbs up really!
We have created a platform which almost requires us to innovate and we even sell that idea to our customers when prospecting. Companies like us find it easy to innovate when they are starting out, you can drive change, try things out and make mistakes, no one cares, but as soon as you have paying customers, things get harder, the more paying customers you have, the more pressure is on you to just do what they want – “bigger, better and faster”, and the larger proportion of conservative/anti-change mind sets you have to deal with the harder it gets to do, your customers will buy into innovation when they are first buying the great thing you have created – BUT – once they are using it, they can resist change which can really stifle innovation if you let it – which brings us right back around to leadership; you need strength and conviction to drive forwards, to take customers where they do not even know they need to go, but it is not just about what you as an innovator does, the truth is your customers need to join with you and allow you to innovate, if your customers are paying you they are always right, so you must listen to them and serve them well, but if you don’t make space and take the initiative to continuously innovate or your customers don’t allow you to innovate then you will most likely stagnate and die.
I asked Gary for his comments on the above, and this is what he said: -
I think when an important tool in your busy day to day job works well, any change can be a daunting prospect, but when you stop and take a longer-term view it is important for people to innovate and to push for changes, and if your engaging the community while pushing for that continuous improvement then that’s even better! Hornbills approach of essentially having a pre-release with a toggle switch to turn the changes off allowed us to take a look at the changes, and appreciate what additional features they provide that we actually hadn’t realised we wanted until we had utilized them! This approach along with the opportunity for dialogue via the Hornbill Community Forums with the actual developers of the product fosters a great working relationship, and you really feel like you have contributed to the direction the platform is moving in.
We have a very transparent approach to our product development process and customer engagement model, if you are interested to see how we approach driving change you can read the original postings and conversations here: -