Marketing wisdom has it that to develop products with good sales potential you need to first appreciate your customer’s needs and then build a product that answers those needs. Customer needs analysis is the process of unearthing information about just what it is customers would really value in a product. The activities most commonly associated with this process are running customer surveys or focus groups and undertaking market research.
One group that sometimes gets left out of the loop is the company’s employees yet these people, particularly those facing customers, aggregate a huge amount of knowledge about what customers think of a product and about how customers actually use them. A brainstorming session with employees can be a very profitable source of ideas for product innovations that will answer to real needs customers have discussed with them.
Trouble is, traditional brainstorming sessions based on throwing up any and all suggestions for consideration often create more hot air than good ideas. In the real world of business not all ideas are good ideas. One reason is that many blue sky ideas are simply not feasible given the practical constraints imposed by the business’ capabilities. A brainstorming session that ends up with several hundred ideas on the butchers paper may be considered successful in terms of quantity but there’s no guarantee of any quality. Searching through this grab bag of ideas, how can you determine which of them really do address an unmet customer need?
A lot more useful ideas are likely to come up if the thinking is focussed in some way so as to keep it within the zone of what customers need. One way to create this sort of focus is to work to a set of preplanned questions that work off your employee’s knowledge of actual customer needs (or behaviour) rather than to ask for off-the-top-of-the-head thoughts. A set of good questions will restrain thinking to sensible product modifications, or even new versions of a product, that could represent valuable innovations.
There’s no such thing as THE list of right questions to ask and you’ll want to develop your own related to your individual business, its capabilities and its area of operations. However, some generic examples will give you an idea of how this approach works and provide a start for your next brainstorming session.
What modifications have customers asked us about? Customers will often discuss the features of a product that would be just right for them. If it would be just right for a group of customers, then it could be worth developing.
Are some customers using our product in a way or for a purpose we never expected or intended them to? For example, iPods are being used as flight data recorders in light aircraft.
Do any customers invest significantly in modifying your product to get it to do just what they want it to? The most zealous windsurfers who get new boards first and modify them, the most advanced builders experimenting with new materials like stressed-skin panels often suggest or even create useful innovations that manufacturers subsequently adopt.
What minor modifications do customers regularly make to the product? Do left-handers have to modify it to suit their handedness?
Is there one modification that would open this product up to a new customer segment such as providing instructions in another language or in braille or developing a ‘green’ version?
Do customers report a consistent difficulty with using a product? Employees are often well situated to hear about, or even anticipate, customer problems with a product.
Using known unmet needs to guide brainstorming removes the unrestrained speculation that leads to impractical suggestions to meet unproven customer needs. Rather, it allows for creative suggestions on how to devise valued solutions that meet real needs. This approach can be a powerful way of coming up with new ideas ranging from minor product modifications to an entirely new product.