How many times have you heard it before?   "Yes, we listen to the customer. Yes, we are customer driven. Yes, we design our services and products based on the customer."  Well, maybe you heard what they said -- but did you really listen?  And what happened to all that customer input.

Often, a lengthy and robust report gets  generated from customer focus groups, survey and informant interviews. Next, a beautiful PowerPoint presentation is made to the leadership team about the key findings from customer research.  However, in many cases it generally validates what is going well, with an occasional nugget or two around areas for improvement.

 I think the problem is that too much of this research is testing  basic satisfaction levels or the organization's messaging. Sure, these are important areas  to measure, but companies are missing a real opportunity when they don’t do the “deep dive”  andask questions about the most important thing a company offers … its FUTURE core services and products.

I’m talking about getting down to your core business model.  We rarely ask this, because we work with our own experienced staff, our Board and perhaps even hire consultants to lead service or product development.  Or we may even create our suite of offerings guided or directed by grant opportunities.

But what if we challenged this process and assumed that our customers are just as sophisticated as outside consultants and can be the product leaders of our companies.  Oh no, you may say, what if they suggest something we can’t deliver, something that challenges the current business model.   Well, maybe it’s time to break a few rules and challenge the status quo.  Who says we can’t be creative and innovate with customers as our partners?

“The key to brands is to have a listening culture.”  Rob, Pace, HundredX

Here are some ideas to help you really listen and incorporate customer feedback into product and service innovation.

1.       Bring an attitude of equity into the process.  It’s time to be humble – you don’t really know more than your customers or clients.   They are equal partners in product/service development and listen to them with as much attention as you would your CEO or Board Chair.  That also means listening constantly in social media!

2.       Start the product development cycle with the phrase, 'what rules can we break to make things simpler'.  Every customer in my 20+ years of marketing wants things simpler.  It’s our architecture and processes that keeps things complicated.  “Out of the mouths of babes”, the saying goes.  I would add “Out of the mouths of our customers and clients. ”  They often generate the simple solutions.

3.       Don’t just put a Band-Aid on the service or product issue thatcauses pain. Go upstream and eliminate the cause of the pain completely as opposed to addressing the symptoms to make it tolerable.

4.       Create a customer or client advisory work-group you consult with during your service build cycle.  This isn’t a focus group, but rather a roll-up-your-sleeve, let's generate products and services  together kind of group.

5.       For your next focus group, ask participants to create a vision of what products/services your customers will experience two years, five years from now and then work backwards to make this a reality

6.     Hire creative people.  Yes,  analytics are important, but listening to customers and thinking totally out of the box for their big ideas, even if the idea sounds ludicrous at the moment, is easier for creative folks.

Together, with customers, you can deliver innovation. But don’t do it in a vacuum synthesizing what you think you heard.  Listen... and then give them the pencil and let them draw the future.