For companies in B2B product development, where should innovation originate? There’s only one correct answer: your customers.
Let’s not get this confused, though. B2B product development teams are hired to pinpoint potentially disruptive products. They’re the ‘who’ in this equation. But the ‘what’—the kernel of innovation that leads to a successful product—always resides in how well you understand your customers’ current and future pain points.
Innovative ideas can work against customer-centric innovation processes
Innovation without a customer-first mindset leads to products that fall flat. On a recent episode of the Innovation+Talks podcast, John Mansour, a product management and product marketing trainer, coach and thought leader, crystalized what happens when customers aren’t at the center of the innovation process.
“In too many companies, the innovation process starts with, ‘Hey, somebody has an idea,’ and the idea goes into the hopper, then it goes through a process. And there are a lot of things that should never be in the hopper,” John said.
His point magnifies how innovation can go wrong if customers aren’t the focal point from the very beginning. Let’s say a new product idea is bad. It’s pretty easy to move on. It gets a little more complicated when the proposed idea is really innovative and seems like a fantastic idea but doesn’t necessarily make your customers’ lives easier. It’s easy to be mesmerized by the cool factor and ignore an important question: Is this practical?
Think of it like this: If your customer base is in Hawaii, your super-new, connected, market-disrupting snow shovel will just take up shelf space.
Listen to the full episode here
Think like a customer, not a product manager
So how do B2B product teams make their offerings more customer-centric? There’s no app for that. It really comes down to old-fashioned homework and relationship building.
First, learn everything you can about your customers based on your history with them, their mission, their values. Scour their websites and find anything you can that has been written about them. This will give you a baseline of who they are and offer some insight into why they do the things they do and how they serve their customers.
But you can only glean so much insight from afar. The product development team must be part of the face-to-face relationship with clients. This is the most direct way to get beneath the surface of readily available information about their company.
When you can see your customers the way they see themselves and empathize with their challenges, B2B product innovation becomes a strategic, repeatable process—and more manageable. You begin to identify customer problems that they’ve just decided to recognize and accept themselves and you can develop toward a solution that a customer may have never thought possible. This kind of innovation is only possible when the product team is part of the relationship.
Idea development requires an open ear
Customer interaction has to be a top priority on the front end of a product development process. This starts with deliberate, consistent conversations with targeted or existing customers.
Just attending the conversations isn’t enough. You have to go into the discussion with an unbiased lens and ask what the top priorities are, why they’re important, how market dynamics shape priorities, what parts of the company they are investing in, and what their customers need.
This isn’t to say you shouldn’t have a handful of bold ideas in your back pocket because you should. Very often, the conversation will shift with a customer asking, “Well, what do you think?” But usually, your main action item is to listen and absorb what a customer is saying and how they’re saying it to understand what’s most important to them.
You don’t need to have all the answers at that moment. Take time to think and confer with your team after each meeting. A well-thought-out strategy at a later date is far more valuable than an on-the-spot suggestion that you hope will make you look smart.
Sustained innovation doesn’t happen by accident. It’s a process that must include understanding your customers’ problems better than anyone else. It takes considerable time, but once you get to the point where customers’ challenges are second nature, consistent innovation becomes a lot easier.
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