What Savvy Intrapreneurs Know: Customers Drive Innovation - SAVVY INTRAPRENEUR

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What Savvy Intrapreneurs Know: Customers Drive Innovation

"Businesses must continually innovate" remains a steady mantra in our globally competitive world. For without it, they say, "companies die."

Savvy intrapreneurs understand that customer involvement in the innovation process is crucial for a product or service's success. Otherwise, no matter how grand or practical an idea may seem on paper, it will expire before the company realizes any projected profits after implementation without preliminary customer input. (But do hold on to failed and frivolous ideas. They might come in useful later.)

Customers rule. In 2003, Business Decisions, Ltd. conducted a study of more than one thousand companies in the E.U. and the U.S.A. on the role of customers in the innovation process. In their report for the Enterprise Directorate General of the European Commission, survey results showed that more than two-thirds of the respondents involve customers in:
  • The provision (generation) of new ideas,
  • The evaluation and refinement of ideas,
  • The detailed design of new products and services, and,
  • The testing of prototypes.
The survey results also showed that changing customer needs are three times more important than technological advances, the opening of new geographic markets, and changes in public policy that affect product design and implementation.

When customers are left out. Few would argue that intrapreneurs should spend tons of company resources on products or services that don't meet customers' needs. But that's what the biggest and best companies sometimes do. They assume, with poorly convincing customer research, that current fans will grab with gusto onto the company's latest experiments with new or refined products.

The Pepsi v. Coca-Cola wars illustrate straightforward examples. Competition often takes precedence over customers. In the 1990s, Crystal Pepsi was launched and then bombed almost as soon as it splashed on grocery shelves. Hardcore Pepsi drinkers couldn't meld the sight of a sparkling clear soda with its flavor, which tasted unexpectedly close to the cola-colored standard. Hence, PepsiCo had to swallow its own marketing hype. The same goes for the Coke flop, New Coke, which choked miserably in the mid-1980s.

Revolutionary intrapreneurship. Sometimes, customers' peeves spark product ideas or improvements. Anger and frustration lead to revolutionary ideas--not just in politics. Technology is the industry that strives to bring speed, ease, and convenience to our hectic, multi-dimensional modern lives. Yet in many respects, the overload of techno gadgets proves a daunting task for consumers who perceive its coolness, but can't make sense of it at all from a practical perspective.

The public's acquisition and management of recorded music has been mired in layers of delivery systems and player products. We fumble with CDs, LPs, tapes, satellite radios, portable CD players, MP3 players, AM-FM radios with cassette players--all with no way to singularly archive and play our selections. (I'm holding on to my old Sony Walkman in anticipation of Antiques Roadshow coming to town.)

The iPod solved this quandary for audiophiles. With "the obvious" in simplicity and function in mind, Apple responded to consumers' woes. Synched with iTunes, the iPod integrates these disparate systems. They've turned the music industry on its deafened ear. The legal system cannot keep up with the technology. And customers are delighted.

Defining internal customers. Savvy intrapreneurs understand what customers want and can anticipate their future needs. (How many times has the iPod morphed into something new?) This same tenet goes for the "customers" we serve at work. You don't have to be a high-profile designer or engineer or marketer to come up with answers to problems in the workplace. If you have an idea for streamlining workflow or saving supply costs, pitch it. Think of your boss or department chief as your customer.

Approach the intrapreneurial opportunity to create a problem-solving project, whether you're assigned to the task or not. Present management with a proposal, including:
  • What the problem, issue, or opportunity is,
  • How you propose to fix it,
  • What benefits it will bring to the company,
  • Which "customers" will be involved in the solution-finding process,
  • How long it will take to research, develop, pretest, and roll it out, and,
  • How you plan to measure its success and improve as needed.
For example, when I on-boarded at a company as a communications consultant, I reviewed current projects to assess whether I could find improvements. Right off the bat, I saw that mailings of printed materials were too frequent and redundant in some cases. After all, my "customers" hired me to find innovative ways to deliver messaging to their clients and prospects in efficient ways.

I made the case for bundling different pieces together and turning others into online communiques to customers on the company's Web site. I also proposed that production practices, like photo shoots and printing, could be ganged to save vendors' time and our money. My customers were wowed at my thorough proposal that showed current expenditures and proposed savings.

What resulted were savings of thousands in production and distribution costs. Tons of kudos from appreciative clients ensued. No one asked me to do it. No one else knew there was an opportunity for improvement. It was my (ta da!) intrapreneurial moment. I'm confident that you can do stuff like this--and more.

Know who your customers are and what they want. The solutions you create will be elegantly obvious.

Tell us how you've done it!

Karen A. Meek is a communications strategist in Seattle, WA. @KarenMeektweets

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