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 / Summer 2006 / Issue 43(originally published by Booz & Company)


My Customer, My Co-Innovator

Involving customers in the innovation process can add value to new product designs.

What portion of your cell phone’s myriad features do you use? Market research shows that most mobile phone owners use less than 20 percent. The innovation that matters isn’t what the innovator offers; it’s what the customer adopts. And as organizations recognize this, they’re starting to use their customers as a source of innovative introspection.

In industry after industry, a shared model for innovation adoption is emerging. The most valuable “platforms” — the tools and technologies used internally to discover, design, and test new products and services — can be creatively and cost-effectively sold or lent to customers, clients, and prospects. Customers get a chance to “try before they buy.” They can adopt and test new ideas and technologies before investing in them. And the purveyors of new technologies rapidly gain insights into the potential value of their wares — insights that might otherwise take years to gather.

One company that understands this is the networking giant Cisco Systems Inc. Over the years, Cisco’s architects and engineers have developed scads of internal tools that allow them to design, configure, optimize, and compare alternative network infrastructures. They often run sophisticated simulations, for example, to determine the number of routers and switches to recommend to customers, or to show prospects how a proposed implementation might work.

How did Cisco come to share this inside information? In the past, Cisco’s engineers and architects felt, often correctly, that most customers and prospects simply wouldn’t understand their internal, informally assembled aids. However, Cisco had several highly sophisticated customers who weren’t satisfied with “solutions”; they wanted to see and understand the thought process behind the company’s proposals. Were these architectures really the best or most cost-effective that Cisco had to offer? So Cisco began showing these customers its in-house simulations. And the customers, in turn, expressed a desire to adapt these design, configuration, and optimization models for their own use.

Cisco’s marketers and innovators had not expected this. But they swiftly grasped the implications. With some thought and polish, they repackaged these tools as customer design interaction platforms. Instead of simply “selling” customers on a complete design, they now conduct collaborative meetings in which prospects literally see and play out the architectural implications of their network priorities.

“We’ve found that when we share our tools with customers rather than just demonstrate how much we’ve improved our technologies, we learn a lot more,” Randy Pond, Cisco senior vice president of operations, processes, and systems, told a Cisco CIO customer workshop in 2004. “Several of you have become true partners in design with us.”

There are conversion costs to changing improvised internal work tools into products accessible by external nonspecialists. But the challenge forces a valuable cultural change: Technological innovators become far more aware of and empathetic to customer needs and constraints.

Cisco’s example may not be typical, but neither is it rare. Procter & Gamble has begun to share some of its computer modeling and market research techniques with Wal-Mart, Tesco, and other distribution channels. This includes the celebrated P&G “moment of truth” research, which tracks consumer attitudes at two critical times: when the product is chosen and when it is used. To be sure, many of P&G’s biggest distributors are also rivals that offer their own private labels, so there are risks to sharing this type of proprietary innovation platform with them. But the rewards are even greater: They include ongoing close ties with retailers, who often share their own innovative tools for analyzing (for example) how store layout, shelf space, and signage influence purchase decisions. Together, these manufacturers and retailers can develop a relationship that transcends any particular innovation tool or technique.

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