Early in my career, there was a very wise mentor who lead the engineering department where I worked and his name was Fred Whitson. Fred would eloquently state, “how high does the customer want us to jump”? What I took from his statement was the more atypical decision of qualifying a customer before developing a solution for them. I now call this decision process “Zero Gate” to reflect what should be the first step in the typical “5 Gate” process of innovation. To successfully innovate, you have to listen to your customers. Without knowing the customer, their pain points, and what they need before developing a product or service, it is much harder to fulfill their needs.
Understanding customer expectations is paramount to having the ability to innovate. It necessitates the need to really understand your customer (including factors like their location and the market(s) they are involved in). Both of these factors are important as every market may have different certification or testing requirements. In addition, knowing the market is important as there may be unique or different end uses of the product. For example, you could be designing a product that is a piece part or a widget that goes into something else. Having a bigger understanding of who your customer is and what they are coming to you for will lead to the ability to appropriately innovate. After all, as adding on so many “bells and whistles” can seem attractive for you to offer, but in reality, your customer may not need it, it may be too difficult to use, or it may cost too much.
So, how exactly do you innovate? One can innovate by simply asking their customers what they need and what their pain points are and then listening to their response. From there, you will then be able to anticipate a product or service that acts as a solution to that need. Essentially, the solution should assist them in maximizing the efficiency of the business and their value stream.
It’s also important to embrace a workplace culture that welcomes innovation. This “culture of openness” is where your team is encouraged to make decisions based on helping your client be more successful with what their own goals are for the product or service. This leads to the break down of silos and aids in communication between departments, so everyone can understand the customer and create solutions as needed. Always encourage innovative thoughts from staff, listen to your customers and grow together. After all, innovation primarily will come from your valued team members who are engaged with your customers.
I stress the importance of innovation because, as a valued small business owner, the culture of openness and listening is so crucial to the success of any business. I’ve experienced it. By letting your staff make educated and thoughtful business decisions based on the customer, your organization and your customers will grow together.
Prepared for Waukesha County Business Alliance.