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Giving Customers a Fair Hearing

Eager to grow through innovation, companies are looking to customers to guide them toward unmet needs. But these entities often end up with vague, unusable -- or even misleading -- customer input. Why?

The authors studied 10,000 customer need statements from many industries and discovered that companies have not even established a definition of what a customer need is or how user input should be standardized in terms of structure and format. Too often, companies ask customers to react to potential solutions, rather than zeroing in on their expertise: the "job" they need to accomplish with the product or service, and at which steps that experience could use improvement. By deconstructing the job, companies can identify opportunities that are universal and long-standing.

In addition, the authors say, companies can collect data that fits their innovation strategy. What the authors propose is a disciplined process for gathering customer requirements that will then be addressed by innovative ideas. They outline the six characteristics that a useful customer statement must possess, including measuring value strictly from a user's perspective -- and not from the factors the company believes should form the basis for the customer's evaluation. The most helpful statements also prompt a clear course of action, specifying what dimensions of the "job" need improvement, such as its sluggish pace or inconsistent quality.

The authors set forth six rules for eliciting feedback that will yield the right raw data to craft customer statements that resonate across company functions, so that departments can unite around a single growth strategy.

Finally, they define the two broad categories of customer requirements -- job statements and desired-outcome statements -- and link which type works best for different innovation strategies.

For CEOs, the authors' message is forthright: Successful innovation is about process, not just the result of brainstorming good ideas.
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