At the recent Front End of Innovation conference in Boston, we learned a lot from the key opinion leaders who presented their thoughts and concepts around innovation. One of the common themes was the mission-critical role of the customer. Specifically, how placing customers at the forefront of a customer-centric strategy was imperative for the success of new product developments.
The 5 Steps to Take BEFORE You Begin Product Development
Perhaps the most important step any individual or organization can take regarding product development is to understand, acknowledge and accept the importance of market research. Moreover, those key stakeholders involved should come to a consensus on how no effort in product development should begin without a clear sense of the target market, the customers’ needs, who they are and how and why they buy. To do so, there are a few steps to take as best practices in the process for successful new product development:
- Reach out to your customers to include them
- Assess what motivates them and find out where, how and why they buy to understand them
- Ideate (co-create) with them to transform them into active vs. passive participants
- Collaborate with them to harness their creativity and establish a foundation for future loyalty
- Iterate with them to ensure you got it right
How to Execute the 5 Steps
Here, we will provide a little more context and definition around each of these steps in the process. The crucial aspect common to each of these steps is involving the customer at every step throughout the process to ensure a successful new product development. As the product developers, you need to capture the customer’s perspective and reflect it back to them via the design and launch of your new product. The only way to do that is to have your customers deeply engaged from start to finish. And to keep them engaged: market research is not a “one and done” process, it’s a long-term commitment to learning about the customer and determining what you need to do to maintain their engagement.
Reaching out to customers should involve an omnichannel approach if your customer target base is represented by a broad demographic. Some of your customers may already be subscribed to your newsletters or video channel, others may be accustomed to direct mail and look forward to content and promotions from you in their mailboxes while another part of your customer base (prospective or existing) may prefer connection via social media. A portion of your audience could be receptive if, and only if, you deliver your messages in 140 character snippets. If you’re unsure who your audience is, reach out as broadly as resources will allow and ensure you emphasize digital and social channels but don’t neglect print.
Now that you have reached out to your customers, your researchers need to be prepared with the right set of questions to interrogate the market. Specifically, to conduct a customer analysis. This begins with an assessment of the market, who are your competitors and what are they offering to your target customers. What are the strengths of those existing products, the weaknesses, and the opportunities to design something that will have greater appeal so that your revenue increases – and those of your competitors go down?
Key questions should be posed to determine the age, gender, education level, salary, ethnicity and additional aspects of a demographic profile. Their geographic profile will reveal where they live, what types of buildings they live in, amenities within their neighborhoods and more. The psychographic profile is perhaps as challenging to collect and get right as it is interesting and informative for product development. Questions here will tap into the psyche of the customer – what do they value, what are their interests, what are their opinions on relevant topics and what kinds of activities do they engage in. Finally, to inform fulfillment channels for your product a behavioral profile should be established and should address where and how they shop. This hits all of the key questions required to determine who your customers are, how and why they buy.
Ideating directly with them affords product developers with an enriched context into the needs that are driving the product development design. Co-creating allows you to truly get to know your customers and how they experience your product (or its competitors) by directly sharing that experience with them. Hearing what they have to say is only part of your role – you need to listen to what they are saying and watch how they are reacting. Allow yourself to be inspired by their ideas. Encourage them to think expansively versus asking them to ideate within pre-defined boundaries and notions. Adopting the mindset, “we’re all part of the same team”, works equally well for both sides.
Collaborations, by definition, are bilateral. One-way dialogue isn’t going to shed any insights into how the customer will engage with your product. Questioning your customer, conversing with them, asking as well as answering questions and allowing them the time they need to communicate their thoughts establishes the rapport you need so that it can become a foundation for a longer-term engagement.
Once you’ve developed your prototype, share it with them. Ask them what they like and dislike about it. Open a discussion to solicit ideas on how they would make it better. Empower your customers to feel like their opinions matter and will be incorporated into the next version of your prototype or product. Be authentic – acknowledge that nobody is simply that good that they get it right the first time. Iteration is a normal and vital part of the best process for successful new product development. Go back to the drawing board, return to them with version 2 to demonstrate that you heard them, you listened and you acted upon what they said. In so doing, you’re reinforcing the message – through your actions – that your customers matter.
By executing the steps above, you will have gained tremendous insight and knowledge about your customers, who they are and why they buy, and honed-in on the need that your product is intended to solve. This enriched understanding will also serve as the platform you need to build out a full SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) analysis. Now that you understand who your customer is and how they experience the problem you’re trying to address, you are finally in a position to contrast your product development and commercial strategy with what you learned from your market research to identify, assess and plan around the threats to the success of your product.
Key Tools to Drive Successful Product Development
RESEARCH: online surveys, quick polls, venue exit surveys and other tools enable research
CUSTOMER ANALYSIS: census data, retail data, focus groups and research panels provide you with the answers you seek to define who your customers are, how and why they buy
DISCUSSION BOARDS: digital chat rooms, ideation co-creation software platforms like Imaginatik™ and the proprietary CrowdWeaving® technique of KL Communications
SOLUTION: facilitate bilateral and multilateral dialogue to harness individual impressions as well as collective reasoning towards consensus
MOCK PRESS RELEASE: a simple approach widely practiced by tech giants including Apple®, HubSpot™, Amazon™ and numerous others that is a straightforward low tech, low budget means of gauging the anticipated “wow” factor of your new product, then working backward to achieve it
REPETITION: as they say, if at first you don’t succeed, try and try again, besides, you need to stay engaged with your customers as values, trends and other market drivers are constantly in flux – if you lose sight of one of those drivers, your customers may shift their attention elsewhere.
“Field of Dreams” scenarios are an urban myth. “Build it and they will come” went out of vogue with the rotary phone. To ensure successful product development, you need to adopt a process based on best-practices in a proven workflow. And, most importantly of all, everything you do in product development starts and ends with your customers.