How many times have you heard it… Yes, we listen to the customer…. Yes, we are customer driven… Yes, we design our products based on the customer. But what really happens to all that customer input?

Generally, a lengthy and robust report is generated from customer focus groups, survey and informant interviews and then a beautiful powerpoint presentation is made to the executives about the key findings from customer research. However, in most 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 around basic satisfaction, or testing messaging that the organization has come up with that may connect with the customer. These are important things to measure, but companies are missing a real opportunity when they don’t do the “deep dive” and ask questions about the most important thing a company has… its core products.

We rarely ask this, because after all we hire  expensive experts to lead product development. Andcomplicated analysis and sophisticated pricing models are created  to determine profitability to come up with the product suite.

Let’s break this open and assume that our customers are just as sophisticated, and they can be the product leaders of our companies. What, you may ask,  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?

Some ideas to help you really listen and incorporate customer feedback into product innovation.

  1. Don’t just put a bandaid on the product issue that is causing pain. Instead go upstream and eliminate the cause of the pain completely, vs. addressing the symptoms to make it tolerable.
  2. Create a product advisory workgroup , made up of customers, that you consult during your product build cycle. This isn’t a focus group; it’s a roll up your sleeves, let’s generate products together.
  3. 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.
  4. Create a vision of what products your customers will experience a year from now, two years, five years and then work backwards to make this a reality.
  5. Hire creative people. Yes, analytics are important, but listening to customers and thinking totally out of the box with their big ideas that may sound ludicrous at the moment, may have the germ of a practical solution.
  6. Bring equality into the formula. It’s time to be humble – you don’t really know more than the customer. They are equal partners in product development, and listen to them with as much attention as you would your CEO.

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