September, 2012 Newsletter

If you don’t regularly go back to your consumers, it’s far more likely that their voice—and valuable input—will get cut out of your process. 

Today, all marketers acknowledge the importance of infusing the voice of the customer in the product development process. And while the idea of customers voicing their needs has been studied in psychology since the 1950s, the first instances of the phrase “Voice of the Customer” didn’t really penetrate the marketing lexicon until the 1980s. (Fred Meyer, our own forward-thinking founder, began incorporating the Voice of the Customer in our process in 1981.) It wasn’t until a 1993 issue of Marketing Science magazine however, that Abbie Griffin and John Hauser wrote the first comprehensive case—and pioneered the early tools for—Voice of the Customer.

Through the years, as other innovation trends have come and gone, the value of—and regard for—the Voice of the Customer has remained steady. This should surprise no one. What is surprising is that so many marketers, who claim to value infusing the voice of the customer into the innovation process, fail to do so deep enough into the development process to make a meaningful difference. This means including the customer not just in development, but in all aspects of innovation. Just as a bad execution of a good idea is as bad as a bad idea, a customer-less execution of a customer-driven idea is as likely to fail as a customer-less driven idea. (It’s ok if you need to go back and read that again.)

The Need for Longitudinal Customer Involvement

I’ve worked with hundreds of clients with sophisticated and not-so sophisticated product development processes (you’d be surprised at who is who—don’t assume the big brands have the big bucks or the more complex processes), and the key to successful product launches is having a rigorous consumer involvement—what we call Longitudinal Customer Involvement. 

Why would you spend all that money and time to develop initial ideas that you know have consumer appeal, and then abdicate the more expensive and risky parts of product development to chance?  I’ve seen so many cases of a winning concept failing in execution. Sometimes the product is outstanding, but the packaging misses the mark. And other times there’s a great product, but then it fails to deliver a positioning that cuts through the clutter. 

We all have good intentions of infusing the consumer in every one of our innovation steps, but then life happens. Budgets get cut, we’re asked to combine two steps into one, we don’t have time to find a vendor, the roll-out date gets pushed up, we have challenges in manufacturing, and we encounter all the other fires that need to be put out that we hadn’t counted on. 

I’ve learned that the trick is in keeping consumer injection integral to your roll-out plan—not something that you add-on as you go along. If you don’t regularly go back to your consumers, it’s far more likely that their voice—and valuable input—will get cut out of your process. You need to have something that is easy, turn-key and something that cannot get “cost-engineered” out of your process. 

The Downside of Focus Groups

Like many researchers these days, I’m not a huge fan of focus groups. They have their place. In particular, I like them for a rough, qualitative read to optimize concepts before they go into quant. Or, at least, they’re helpful to find out if there is anything that is going to radically throw off your concept.

But when it comes to innovation, focus groups can be downright deadly, for several reasons:

  • Consumers are great for reacting—they can tell you what they like and they’re excellent at telling you what they don’t like. But for innovation, you want consumers who have more foresight into what could be. Not all consumers are created equal on this front. (That’s why we go to great lengths to find our Creative Consumers® associates and then train them even further.)
  • The paralyzing power of groupthink makes it hard for consumers who don’t know each other to stick their necks out there for anything that isn’t “safe” or incremental. Therefore, real innovation ends up getting watered down.
  • It just feels antithetical to innovation. When you have the newest, most innovative forms of getting consumer input, why would you use the oldest, stalest, least innovative way of involving consumers?  After all, process matters—and innovative processes change our thinking to be more innovative.

Successful implementation is part mindset and part planning. Here are some tips for how you can add more Longitudinal Consumer Touchpoints into your innovation plan:

  • Get Management Support. Find a “champion” in the organization who will support the need for this—and defend the spending when it is in jeopardy.
  • Involve Your Target (Whoever They May Be). Many of my clients don’t sell directly to consumers. They need to go through doctors, nurses, businesses, purchasing agents or distributors first. By understanding that VOC can stand for the Voice of the Customer just as well as it stands for Voice of the Consumer, you can use all the same rules to get those critical voices—especially the ones that tend to be more skeptical of your marketing efforts—engaged and involved in your innovation process.
  • Plan it Out. Put together innovation plans that have the timing and budgets worked into them for consumer touchpoints from beginning to end.

The Voice of the Customer, while an old concept in innovation terms, is just as valid today—and more critical than ever. It’s one of those funny things that we all acknowledge the importance of, most think we’re accomplishing, but few are doing well. The key is to craft an approach that keeps the consumer (or customer) involved throughout—not only in concepts, but in all phases of development—opportunities, product ideas, packaging solutions, promotional executions, refinement and optimization, even distribution and other areas. It’s Longitudinal Consumer Involvement that not only brings freshness to your innovation efforts, but also relevance to keep it moving forward.

 

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Christine Haskins is the Vice President of Customer Experience at Ideas To Go. She facilitates customer-centered innovation for Fortune 500 companies across all market categories and industries.

©2012 Ideas To Go, Inc. All rights reserved.

Emeritus Facilitator Christine Haskins

Christine Haskins is an Emeritus Facilitator and Former Vice President of Customer Experience at Ideas To Go. She worked with customer-centered innovation for Fortune 500 companies across all market categories and industries.