Leading a company into a new era of customer-centric innovation takes patience, courage, and a commitment to finding the best people and processes. Follow these 10 best practices to lead innovation and change for B2B organic growth.
As business leaders, we drive for results, results, results! There’s certainly nothing wrong with that. However, berating the businesses for not growing fast enough is not going to be as helpful as addressing the root causes. One will be weak value propositions due to inadequate market insight. You can address this with primary market research in the form of the customer interviews. So, while we will always push for faster growth, let’s be at least as enthusiastic about pushing for faster market learning. It’s natural to celebrate new product successes, but let’s also celebrate our new knowledge acquired along the way.
It’s true that when we finish a voice of the customer project, that we might find some “low hanging fruit.” We may find opportunities for which we already have technical solutions in place, or for which our current products are well positioned. However, don’t let the desire for low hanging fruit be the endgame. Once market opportunities have been discovered, accept that your business may need time and investment. Rouse your teams to accept the difficult problems as challenges. Also, provide a bit of cover, so that they can climb the tree a bit higher for a bigger payday. “Climbing higher” usually means there are barriers to be broken. And it can be difficult to determine how long it might take to solve some of these bigger customer problems. Don’t be discouraged by these difficulties, but rather, let them be energizing. There’s a reason why the customer problem hasn’t been solved before. Your team could be at the precipice of a significant and enduring innovation.
You probably already have good project management processes in place. You have schedules, charts, standing meetings and whatnot to ensure that all aspects of new product development, including voice of the customer projects, keep moving forward. However, there’s one particular reason that a VoC project may move slowly that you’re unlikely to hear. It’s this: “We haven’t interviewed our customers because we are anxious and scared to conduct interviews.” There’s just no safe place for someone to verbalize that the project is stalled by fear. I have a practical solution for this: ensure that all voice of the customer project teams are scheduling practice interviews. By practicing, practitioners will become more comfortable. More comfortable with the process, the tools, the probing methods, etc. The “practice interview” can be with most anyone filling in for the customer’s role. However, teams should try to make it as realistic as possible. There are often employees who once worked for one of your customers. Or perhaps folks from sales who could represent the customer challenges that they hear on a daily basis. And so, we don’t need to beat your teams into a confession about their anxiety. But let’s do address it all the same; by making sure your teams include practice interviews as part of their scheduled activities.
What gets measured gets done! Quite simply, a company is only serious about customer-centered innovation when it tracks customer-learning activities, such as voice of the customer interviews, within the performance management system. Your business has invested in a performance management system to ensure that daily activities sync with the company’s strategy. Use it!
It’s good to commit to a proven voice of the customer process, such as New Product Blueprinting. However, it’s at least as important to identify people to execute the process. For most businesses, this is the product manager. This title may or not be used in your company. It’s not the title, but the role that matters. Their role is to represent the customer throughout new product development. If it’s unclear who’s job this is…that’s certainly the most significant problem that your business has in the pursuit of growth. The best product managers, like the best from any discipline, are experienced and educated in their field. And therefore, fast growing companies will have a system to allow product managers to grow within their role to gain that experience. It’s a best practice to have at least three levels within product management such as: Level 1) Associate Product Manager, Level 2) Product Manager, and Level 3) Senior Product Manager. Associate Product Managers work the shows, do research, and answer field questions. They gain some experience working with development under the direction of a full Product Manager. Level 2, the full Product Manager, runs a product portfolio like a mini-CEO. She’s an expert in the both market and in processes (such as voice of the customer / New Product Blueprinting) to create products with winning value propositions. And Level 3, the Senior Product Manager, may not have any additional responsibilities beyond Level 2 per se, but because it’s so valuable to keep experience in this critical role, an additional salary tier is a win/win.
A market risk assessment should be part of every business’s phase gate process. A project team uses this tool to assess the amount of market/commercial risk. If we know the customers well, know the channels well, and the new product not expected to be radically different from current ones, then market risks are low. But if there are major differences or large knowledge gaps, then those risks are likely significant. Without a market risk assessment, we don’t really know. No project should be allowed to continue without one. And of course, for projects that do have high market risks, there should be a plan to mitigate those risks, such as a voice of the customer project.
It’s so easy to get excited about new technologies, and their possibilities. While it’s good to anticipate the impact of tech trends, we need to remember that customers don’t really care about technologies. And worse, they are terrible at predicting them. Thomas Watson, IBM chairman in the 1940’s stated that “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” Darry Zanuck, executive with 20th Century Fox stated that “Television won’t be able to hold onto any market it captures after the first six months. People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.” So, go easy on pushing a technology with new product teams. This introduces unhealthy dynamics, which pressures teams to prove out leadership theories rather than understand the true customer issues. Besides, we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously when making predictions. Yoda understood this best, “Always in motion is the future.”
In the New Product Blueprinting process, your team will define the project’s scope in Step 1. This is a strategic exercise, in which the team will select a market to investigate. As a leader, you give the team momentum when you roll up your sleeves and work with them to select a scope. It sends a good signal. They will be more committed as a result, and you will be better informed about the rationale for the selection. One warning, though. If your company hasn’t done lots of voice of the customer projects historically, there’s a temptation to add too much into those first few projects. Too many audiences. Too many markets. This sets up the project for failure from the outset. When selecting a market, the team should first select a broad area of interest such as a single job-to-be-done or a product. Next, the team should select the audience that executes the job or uses the product. A nice, tightly defined project has a single audience. It’s a workable to pursue a couple audiences. But if there are three or more, then the project should probably be subdivided.
When we execute voice of the customer projects, using a system such as New Product Blueprinting, we’re committing to the long view. Results may not be instant or immediate. Doing a few interviews and expecting a huge success is like working out for a few days then entering into a Mr. Universe contest. However, like exercise, when voice of the customer projects become a habit, the results will follow. Often bigger than imagined.
If was easy, anybody could do it. And while it might feel lonely leading your company’s customer insight movement, help is on the way. Be a champion, stand in the gap, and others will arrive. They will come from all corners of marketing, engineering, most anywhere. And don’t be surprised if a new ally arrives from the boardroom. Board members have built successful careers, usually from an industry similar to your own. More often than you might think, they are searching and waiting. They are looking for that director, that vice-president, for that leader within the organization to rally behind.
There’s a common expression among American football coaches, “Trust the process.” That is, let’s look beyond today’s results and build a foundation for something great tomorrow. What other tips might you offer for leaders? I would love to hear them! Feel free to drop me a line and share any of your own ideas, or thoughts on this piece to [email protected].