Experience your product like a customer
Take, for example, the building where I work. We have a fine office space in a building managed by a large management company. This summer, we've experienced very hot weather, and the temperature in the building has been hard to maintain. The management, to their credit, installed new HVAC equipment and to some extent the building is now more comfortable. Except for the fact that you could hang cattle carcasses in the restrooms. The temperature in there must be in the low 60s. That's good for productivity, since no one is going to spend much time in there, but terrible from an energy use and conservation point of view.
Now, I am certain that everyone on our floor is aware of how cold the restrooms are. In fact, passing people in the hall we often comment on it, and I've seen several people wearing jackets or sweaters (when the outside temperature is in the mid 90s) to the restroom. I'm also willing to bet that while we all know about the problem, no one has reported it, since everyone knows that it is a problem but it's not an important problem. Further, since the management group hasn't had reports or complaints, they assume there are no problems. Everyone is a little less better off, but no one is severely damaged either. In the absence of critical feedback, the management team thinks everything is fine, while we sit here, wondering why they waste so much energy cooling a restroom, when the rest of the building has traditionally been problematic.
What would fix this problem? The best result would be for the management team to regularly visit the building and enter as many offices and common areas as possible. It's clear that no one from the building management group has entered our restrooms in several months, because they would take action if they had visited. A second option would be to regularly poll the tenants, asking about the services and also seeking information about even small concerns or issues. But we've been trained to avoid knowledge of these issues rather than request them and seek alternatives.
Perhaps the best answer would be if the person responsible for managing our building had an office here - and had to experience the baking heat and freezing temperatures along with us, her customers. The absence of complaints does not signal that all is well - it merely signals that we've either given up asking or are tired of having small issues ignored. We'll be voting with our feet later in the year, leaving this building to move to another location, hopefully one that can manage the simple art of HVAC. But that building has an added benefit - the management team for the building resides in the building. Instant feedback!
What's this got to do with innovation? Everything. Far too often we are guilty of creating products and services that we don't consume, don't use or don't need, so we don't experience them from the customer's point of view. Every business should require its employees to use some of its products and service and listen carefully to feedback - small complaints that many would choose not to even voice, and large concerns as well. Small problems cause barriers and resistance just as much as large problems, but the small problems fly under the radar screen, rarely reported or rising to the attention of product developers who don't experience the problem first hand. If you don't experience your product or service the way a customer does, how can you expect to find interesting innovations or important gaps?
And I don't mean that you simply deploy the product in a lab and pretend to use it in the way you believe a customer would use it. I mean take it home, use it under all conditions, without the support of the product development team. Then, report on what works well, what things didn't work the way you expected, and what quirky or uncertain behavior exists. Next, what would you change if you had all power? Do this with your own products and services and innovation opportunities will be obvious, as well as the issues and challenges your product or service creates for others.
I know from working in the banking industry that many people who work for large banks (Wells Fargo, Wachovia, Bank of America) have accounts with ING and other web-only banks. Why? Why would a bank employee have accounts with a competitor? Because ING solved problems or offered service that the larger banks couldn't or wouldn't. If your own employees acquire products and services from competitors, how much more likely is it that your customers and prospects will? Why not simply ask your employees if they acquire goods and services from competitive offerings or companies, and if so, why they take those actions.
Being blind to customer needs or expectations is a dangerous place to be. Willful blindness, not wanting to see or not taking the time to discover, is even worse. But it happens every day, and is how so many products and services are disrupted.