Less about Inventing, More about Listening
By Larry O Connor
It was readily apparent that our offerings had not only expanded but had become more feature/performance-rich during the past 24 plus years.
Because consumer needs change so rapidly today, old-fashioned 'tried and true' products you could produce for several years simply don't exist anymore ' for us or any company in the industry.
The dramatic growth and online involvement of people in forums and social media have had a very positive effect on involving real, day-to-day users in our product development process.
For us, the open, two-way communications goes way beyond getting people to like, follow, friend and plus you. It's more about listening to and handling their questions one at a time ' and responding as quickly, accurately and honestly as possible.
Our customers and our team are much more involved with each other today than during the early days; and in recent years, it has had a very positive effect on almost every aspect of the company.
Power users and neophytes alike have strong opinions on how they want their mobile device to serve them and the add-in/add-on products they want and need.
Product Life Cycles
Close and continual communications have shrunk product life cycles--dramatically. I'd estimate that over 50 percent of our sales are derived from new products we've launched in the past two or three years.
The collapsed product life cycle places a tremendous strain on product design and supply chain teams to accurately predict both product demand and end-of-life.
Granted, there are firms that simply offer me-to products at a lower cost; but there are always those people who think cheaper is better than value.
Price is important to today's customer, but it is seldom his/her sole buying consideration.
Sometimes they don't even realize their wants/needs themselves.
That's probably what Steve Jobs meant when he paraphrased Henry Ford's response to the question regarding customer input on product design. 'If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have asked for a faster horse.'
The formal method of listening to what people think they want wouldn't have produced the auto or the iPad/tablet, iPhone, iMac Air/ultrabook/notebook.
Asking people what they think, what they want, what they like doesn't work because people are fundamentally nice and want to be helpful, even when they can't help.
That's the point I believe both Ford and Jobs were making when they introduced their giant leap innovations.
However, the minute the consumer started using these products, they began searching for device enhancements for their day-in, day-out usage.
Because of our instant communication social media world, people have been quick to tell companies that focus on listening that they want multiple USB ports; higher-capacity, ultrafast SSDs, external storage devices and more.
More storage capacity may be obvious because there are a lot of people who really require lots of storage capacity for their work. But there are even more who simply want it.
Innovation is a lot more than just saying you listen; and really, is there any company that doesn't say, 'We listen''
Innovation really starts with an acceptance that the world and the marketplace has changed and continues to change. That's why progressive firms view the customer in new ways, not just as sales targets but as partners.
In our organization, that means customer service/customer support has to be an important part of the complete product development process.
They are the customers' voice in a firm's plans and programs.
The key is constantly listening to power and casual users to determine what will meet the wants/needs of the majority.
It sounds simple, but it not only requires a lot of listening, it requires a lot of filtering (good ideas, not so good ideas) and team evaluation.
While reviewing the complete product line, I was pleasantly surprised at the number of ideas that were refined, tweaked and turned into real products simply by listening to customers on forums and on the social media.
Obviously, the innovation process isn't as simple as listening and building on what people tell you they want. That only produces Ford's faster horse.
The real key to is to mix and synthesize all of the ideas/inputs to determine which new products are really wanted/needed, which have to mature a little and which need to be discarded because they were provided by nice people who just wanted to be nice and helpful.
Avoiding Social Desert
A company's challenge today is not to banish social media to one department of the company; but rather to ensure that customer service is central to all of the company's activities.
Moving to a social business is really horizontal vs. vertical integration that isn't built around marketing campaigns. It's a value-based organization where everyone ' including customers ' has a stake in the company's/product's success.
I'm continually amazed at the great things that can happen when people inside and outside the company interact with each other to solve an issue and develop a solution.
True incremental innovation isn't as simple as saying you're involving the customer.
The key is asking the right questions and then being willing to listen.