Asking your most important customers what new products on solutions would be of benefit to them may seem to be a logical approach to your new product idea process but there is a problem
Steve Jobs said: A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them. Henry Ford said: If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse
and that is you are unlikely to receive the answer you need or expect
Customers Don’t Know What They Want
In most medium sized B2B businesses there are several key decision makers. So who is best to talk to about potential new products? Probably not purchasing or quality so engineering or project management may appear to be a better bet. The problem is they are undoubtedly focussed on the latest project or task rather than looking ahead to what they may need in future.
Even if engineering and project people had time to look ahead the value of their input may be limited. In many medium sized organisation most employees operate within their own cells and very few have a complete picture of what is coming along in future or even where their current project fits within the overall whole.
Customer New Product Ideas Are Bad Ideas
When it is possible to engage in a potential new product discussions they often tend to centre on the obvious. What do the competition have that you do not? Or minor adjustments to existing products rather than true new product concepts.
This problem is exasperated if sales are entrusted with the new product discussion as their focus is also short term (rightly so) and competitor focussed. Returning with a message that everything will be fine if the business simply copies the competitor products is a common (and lazy) sales response.
Few businesses have limitless resources so it is unlikely that it will be possible to identify any common new product themes from the relatively small number of customers it will be possible to survey on new product ideas. Each response returned will often therefore need to be researched further as a stand-alone item.
Improving The New Product Concept Process
A better approach may be to first develop some potential new products concepts in before engaging with customers. These may often be initial ideas with little detail on how they may be implemented but simply designed to solicit a response and to start a dialogue.
Fuelling the process with some potential ideas often leads to increased customer engagement and a better response that is less focussed on what is available now. Many of the concepts introduced will be complete non-starters but may at least deliver feedback on why they will not work that may be filtered in to the next set of concepts.
Marketing should be tasked to customer discussion rather than sales. This has the advantage of allowing sales to concentrate on the short term and ensure that the conversation is turned away from existing competition. With marketing in charge of the process any customer input can be fed directly into the new product screening process. Sales may then brought back into the process at a later point when new product concepts have been screened and developed to a point they may be taken forward.
Although the suggested approach is far from perfect for most organisations it is a more realistic approach than the approach undertaken by Apple and Ford of developing new products that are truly market disruptive. Although the returns from this approach can be significant the risks involved and the resources required are beyond most medium sized businesses