Asking for customer input to the product innovation process may seem like a logical approach 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 a helpful answer.

Customers Don’t Know What They Want

In most medium-sized B2B businesses there are several key decision-makers. So who is it best to talk to about potential new products? Probably not purchasing or quality.

Engineering or project management may appear to be a better bet. The problem is their focus will be the latest project or task and not looking ahead to what they may need in future.

Even if engineering and project people had the time to look ahead the value of their input is often limited. In medium-sized organisations, most employees operate within their own cells. 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 new product discussions in B2B markets they often centre on the obvious. What does the competition have that you do not? Or minor adjustments to existing products rather than true new product concepts.

If sales are entrusted with new product discussion their focus is also short term (rightly so) and competitor focused. 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 difficult to identify new product themes based on a small customers sample. Each response will require further research.

Improving The New Product Concept Process

A better approach could be to first develop some creative new products ideas before engaging with customers. These may often be initial ideas with little detail but designed to solicit a response and to start a dialogue.

Fuelling the process with some potential ideas often leads to increased customer engagement. It also delivers a response that is less focused on what is available now. Many of the concepts introduced will be complete non-starters but may generate constructive feedback.

Marketing should take on the new product discussion. This allows sales to concentrate on the short term. It also ensures 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 be brought back into the process at a later point when new product concepts have been developed to a point they can be taken forward.

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