One way to succeed in a competitive market is to be relentlessly customer-focused, and the best way to do that is to actually talk to people you are trying to serve.
“Customers have been willing collaborators for a long time, but most companies aren't aware of it or how to engage with them," says Greg Warman, co-founder and innovation catalyst for ExperiencePoint, a design thinking-focused training company headquartered in Toronto. As a result, companies are missing opportunities to drive greater value from their products, and to identify and solve problems that customers may not even realize that they have. “When you get out into the world and see how people use your products, you'll find inspiration everywhere that will make your business better," Warman says.
However, this kind of engagement requires more than customer surveys and focus groups. “You can't just ask people what they want," he says. To find inspiration, companies need to work with customers in their own environments to observe how they function so that they can identify the challenges they face. And once they come up with solutions, they need to return to the customer to gather their feedback, and iterate the design. “It's like a dance between the customers and the designers to get to the true market need," says Warman.
Watch and Learn
John Waldmann, CEO of Homebase, has been following this 'customer as collaborator' approach to business since he launched his company in 2014. Homebase offers small companies free employee scheduling, timesheets, time clock and hiring software so they can easily manage hourly employees. Waldmann came up with the idea for the business after observing his friends spend hours managing schedules and paychecks at their Seattle restaurant; the restaurant eventually became Homebase's first clients, as well as their first collaborators.
Waldmann and his software engineers spent six months observing how the restaurant's staff clocked in, got their schedules and took breaks, and how many hours managers spent tracking it all on paper. Then they built prototypes of applications to address their biggest challenges, gathered feedback from managers on the design, and iterated the interface until it was perfect. “We felt that if we could build a solution that worked for them, it would be great for other companies like theirs," Waldmann says.
He was right. Today Homebase is used by thousands of small businesses across the country, and Waldmann's team actively seeks out customer feedback and looks to their challenges for inspiration. The first Thursday of every month is “Customer Visit Day," where every employee is encouraged to visit a customer site to learn about the business and the challenges they face. ExperiencePoint's Warman also gives employees gift cards to use at customer sites during holidays, and invites different customers to cater the company's Friday lunches. “We are always looking for opportunities to talk to them about their business challenges and what problems we can solve," he says.
Customers have been willing collaborators for a long time, but most companies aren't aware of it or how to engage with them.
—Greg Warman, co-founder, ExperiencePoint
These interactions have led to several product innovations, such as a new hiring app, which includes a dedicated phone number applicants can text for instant access to an online application, so walk-ins can apply immediately from their phones. “That idea came out of sitting side-by-side with a client and watching them go through the process of hiring new employees using paper applications," he says.
Cocktails and Collaboration
These kinds of customer collaborations can also be used to inspire innovation among internal teams and with the partners that companies work with, says Andres Gil Zaldana, executive director of the Colorado Brewers Guild in Denver, a trade association for craft brewers.
To help his members push their creativity to new heights, in 2014 the Guild launched Collaboration Beer Fest, an annual festival where two or more breweries (with at least one a Colorado Brewers Guild member) work together to create a totally new brew. The event started with just four beers, but this year it had nearly 200 entries with collaborators joining from all over the world. “Our members get really excited about it," Zaldana says. “Because it is a collaboration, it allows them to take more risks and to challenge themselves to do something new."
The Guild acts as a collaboration hub, bringing members together to brainstorm ideas and find like-minded partners to inspire new projects. These collaborations have generated hundreds of sometime crazy formulas, including a ramen golden ale, a pina colada Milkshake, and an orange cream stout—all beers that were featured at the 2019 event.
Some of them are only produced once for the festival, while others become mainstays in the marketplace, Zaldana says. “It's become a way for us to inspire the beer community to challenge itself."
While not every collaboration can result in a boozy community festival, any company can apply the lessons learned from the Colorado brewing community to their own collaboration efforts. “It's about creating a safe and creative space where you can try something new, and know that people will celebrate your efforts," says Zaldana.
Homebase's Waldmann adds that it isn't always easy to make time for customer collaborations, but it is worth it. “A lesson we've had to learn over and over is that spending 10 minutes in-person with a customer is worth 10 phone calls or 10 days sitting alone in the office," he says. “Sometimes you have to force yourself to make the time for it, but you'll build a better business if you do."
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