Your customers will tell you what they want
What would you do if a customer created a series of videos about your product, how he or she uses the product and posted them on Youtube? Would you want to know about those videos, understand the way in which your product is presented? Would you want to co-opt the presenter, and work with them to improve your product and how it is presented?
Would you consider watching these unfiltered videos and take them for what they are - customer feedback and potential opportunities for insights into unmet customer needs and potential workarounds? Because if video exists on the web of customers use or commenting on your product, you should be watching that video and paying attention. This is an example of customers giving you a doorway into their world, unasked and unfiltered. As Yogi Berra once said, you can observe a lot by just watching.
The origin of my latest rant
Recently I was leading an idea generation session with a client. To prepare for the event, I looked up the product in question to see if there were sites where customers were talking about the product, its features and potential shortcomings. I came across a series of videos by a young customer who was "reviewing" the product and talking about its use. Curious, I brought the video up before we started generating ideas. Who, I asked the attendees, has seen this video? Out of 15 people present, only one had seen the video. Everyone in the room had direct or indirect responsibility for marketing, product design and product development of the product family in question. Thousands of dollars have been spent to learn more about customer needs. Surveys have been taken, research conducted. Yet only one person had bothered to find the research that was freely available.
When we watched the video I watched the attendees. They laughed at the funny parts, grimaced at the gaps or negative feedback, and seemed relatively satisfied with the review. Then I asked them - what did you notice about the use of your product? What was missing? What was unusual? What workarounds did the reviewer create that overcome shortcomings in your product? Suddenly everyone perked up. A few even had ideas about how to change the product based on what they'd seen. Yet no one in an experienced team had bothered to ever look for customer insight that was freely available, and fairly insightful.
Orwell had it right
One of my favorite writers is George Orwell, because he wrote with such direct force and simplicity. He felt that a writer should speak directly and avoid useless words that dilute meaning. He also believed that many people are easily distracted from what are simple truths. His saying "To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle" is applicable here. What he meant is that the truth is often right in front of us, but we are so busy, or so predisposed to other information or perspectives that we miss the truth.
Innovators often speak about obtaining customer needs, but many innovation teams are filled with people who rarely, if at all, interact with customers. They are more comfortable reading third hand reports from consulting firms or marketing agencies than they are interacting with customers. Because customers tend to be frank about what works, and what doesn't, with your product. This fear of engagement leads to obtaining insights from filtered sources rather than engaging and understanding at the depth necessary. There's a lot to learn at the coalface you can't understand at the head of the mine.
What also floored me is how many of the people watching the video of the customer using the product commented on how he was doing it "wrong". Wrong in terms of their understanding, or their design of the product. Only one of the people in attendance was an actual user of the product, and he remained silent. Others commented on his preparation, his usage and his commentary. Rather than listen and learn to an experienced user who is taking time to review and comment on a product, many suggested his insights were simply wrong.
What are your customers telling you
What do your customers tell you, and in what channels? Customers are clamoring to tell you what works, what doesn't and what's missing in your products. They are willing to talk to you if you are willing to listen. They are tweeting, posting on YouTube, writing on blogs, calling your support lines. They stand ready and willing to share their insights with you. What's holding you back?
Fear of what they'll say? Inability to react to their suggestions or ideas? Simply too busy to spend time watching a video of a customer using your product? Or are you unaware of all the insights that are provided daily about your product in the social media stream? Just because you aren't listening doesn't mean they'll stop talking. Eventually they'll start talking to your competitors, or creating their own solutions, or pointing out the weaknesses, not the strengths of your product.
What do you need to do? Engage first. Let them know you are listening. Listen to what they say, and what they don't say. Don't reject insights or comments but learn from them. Reap the insights and ask for more. This is free customer research of the best kind. Set expectations - not every idea can be implemented, but work with the people who are active to ask them to pilot new products, give feedback. Create your own media partner. Or, just ignore them and they'll go away. Mostly to your competition which is smart enough to listen and respond.