Over at the Fast Company blogjam, Dave Pollard looks at whether great product innovation really starts with the customer – and describes the whole issue as a chicken or egg question.
Involving the customer in product innovation is not an either or proposition – it is something that should always be done – but done in the right context. And when listening to customers companies need to realize that their mileage will vary depending on the type of product or the phase within the product life cycle.
In some product categories, people could care less about the products or the companies that manufacture them – making customer feedback useless at the least, or potentially dangerous if given too much weight.
Newer products that are still primarily appealing to innovators and early adopters have a different problem with potentially similar consequences. Assuming the product is successful, customers probably care about the product in this case. But their ability to innovate ahead of what is available will likely be several steps behind the ability of the team that came up with the innovation – and giving too much weight to customer feedback may limit the future product potential and give the competition an opportunity to catch up and out-innovate the incumbent.
Then you have more mature product categories where people care – probably the area that yields the most valuable customer feedback. Except that here too you have to be careful about how much weight you are giving to that customer feedback. If your goal is to grow your product revenue by 80% in the future, then you have to realize that “all” current customers only make up a fraction of your future customer base. Attaching too much weight to their feedback may eliminate a large number of future customers that do not share their profile. And according to Harvard Prof. Clayton Christensen’s disruptive innovation theory, your trajectory of product improvement will eventually cross the mainstream trajectory of customer need – limiting your potential future customer base, and opening yourself up for a disruptive innovation.
All that being said, and according to MIT Professor Eric Von Hippel, in some fields there are a small number of “lead users” who invent new products out of necessity and who can be an important source of new product concepts. The kind of customer listening that is required in this case is very different from what most people think of when talking about customer involvement in product innovation!