Keeping the Customer in Focus

Most innovation projects focus on discovering customer needs and resolving customer problems at the front end of the process.  But, unfortunately, once an innovation is articulated and approved, it enters  “the process” and addressing customer needs often takes a back seat.  Here are some ways to keep the customer front and center throughout the innovation process from ideation to commercialization.

Customer Insights

Most of the customer focused effort occurs in the front end of the process, and there are numerous techniques to elicit and identify customer needs ranging from focus groups to image collages to more traditional market research.  We believe that the most important aspect of the customer insight work is developing empathy for your customers.  Put yourself in their shoes – both literally and figuratively.  Shop where they shop – observe their frustrations and indecision.  Talk with them about their frustrations.  Try to understand why they are frustrated and what trade-offs they are forced to make.  Summarize your observations using the voice of the customer:  I wish I could (do, get, or have something), get but I can’t because (something prevents me …what?), so instead I (do/use something else or do nothing and remain unsatisfied).  Using this simple mad-lib helps to get to the essence of the frustration or trade-off.

Business Model

After the insights have been collected and the ideas generated, it is time to develop the concept more fully by creating the first hypothesis of the business model to be tested.  Two key parts of the business model address the customer:  Who he/she is and what benefits the innovation provides to the customer.  (The other parts of the business model are how the product service is created and delivered, how profit is generated, and what defines the differentiation).  It has been amazing to see how often innovations get to this stage with only a very cursory or naive view of who the customer is.

Of course, robust customer insight discovery work can really help inform your view of the customer at this point.  For example, Crayola, in the early 2000s, was looking for new growth opportunities beyond increasing the number of crayon colors.  Working with Strategos, Crayola employees spent time observing kids engaged in creative play and their mothers.  One of the insights they collected was that although many mothers really wanted their kids to (broadly) exercise their creativity, they cringed when it became apparent that this creativity was going to lead to a mess that they needed to clean up.  So for Crayola, their target customers were mothers who valued and encouraged their children’s creativity.  Note that this is not all mothers, and not teachers or others who supervised children’s creative play.  The benefit to the nurturing, yet nervous, mother was the ability to provide creative outlets for their children’s creativity and not worry about the resulting mess.  Crayola now has several products in this “No Mess” platform including Color Wonder, Color Explosion, Color Wonder Airbrush and others.  Identifying the “customer” in describing the business model should be more than a simple pro-forma response; it requires reflection on your customer insights and a rich description of the customer.


Usually once a concept and its business model are articulated, it goes though an approval process which results in time and resources for the innovation.  At this stage of approval, the most important criteria should be:  Are we convinced that this a strong, unsatisfied customer need?  Does the product or service provide the benefits to address these needs?  Unfortunately, we’ve seen a lot of clients get tangled up in financials and spreadsheets at this point.  There is certainly time for the needed financial analysis later, after the customer need and the benefits have been adequately described and defended


Experimentation is another way to continue to gather and refine customer insights.  The business concept at this phase is really a starting hypothesis with a series of assumptions to be tested.  The idea behind successful experimentation is to isolate concrete assumptions and to test them separately.  The most important assumptions to test first are those that address the customer need.  “Do customers really want this?”  (Because, if they don’t there is no use testing other assumptions.)  The best experiments involve an exchange of value with the customer.  We know that it is very easy for people to say they will buy something in a focus group, but talk is cheap.  The “exchange of value” doesn’t need be money.  Exchanging email addresses (e.g. for details on product availability), taking time to download and install an app, voting or ranking options with “monopoly money,” and investing time in viewing a demo are all ways to determine the “seriousness” of a preference.  When working with a client that was testing some new innovations in frozen food, we asked customers if they would trade frozen meals currently in their freezer for this new products.  We didn’t really intend to go collect their frozen meals, but if they agreed to the trade it did show a preference for the new product.  Finding fast and cheap ways to test customer receptiveness usually requires some creativity.


The product has been launched, and now there is additional opportunity to observe and learn from your customers.  Are there additional customer frustrations in the purchase, use, or disposal of the product that could be addressed?  Does the early market performance suggest additional customers or additional ways to use the product?  As hypotheses emerge, continue to design and execute experiments and accelerate your progress to the new, improved version.

When clients talk about the “customer” as a driver of innovation, we usually hear about consumer insight work early in the front end of the process. But you should keep connected to the customer throughout the process – all the way through launch if you want your innovations to succeed.






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