Four Ways to 'Hear' Your Consumers

In our last column we said that people who simply listened to what consumers wanted and then created a new product, service, or business model to fill the need are up-ending scores of industries (insurance, travel, music, law). These competitors all found ways to identify something clearly lacking, while the experts stood by seemingly unaware.

The indisputable takeaway? Listening to consumers is the key to innovation success.

We bring this up for a reason. While most people would say creating the new product to fill the need is the hardest part of the innovation process, we disagree. From our experience, once you truly understand what customers need, creating an idea to fill the void is the easy part.

The most difficult part of identifying a hole in the marketplace is hearing—really hearing—what consumers want. And industry experts are not good at hearing needs.

If your blood pressure is rising, we’re talking to you.

Selective Listening

We’re fond of the saying “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” It reminds us that experts often “listen” for issues they can solve using the set of tools they have at their disposal. Being an expert naturally makes you listen selectively, which leaves you vulnerable in two ways.

First, you may be listening for just the challenges you can fix with your set of tools, potentially ignoring the multitude of other customer needs. Go to the Cancer Treatment Center of America’s website and you’ll find this quote: “At Cancer Treatment Centers of America, we believe there isn’t one way to beat cancer—there are hundreds.” To patients, this statement seems intuitively true because it considers the potential benefits of nutrition, surgery, drugs, and even emotion-related treatments. To a surgeon, this statement may sound like malpractice. In her mind, there exists only one worthwhile approach, which is the safest, most effective, most proven–whatever. The other approaches don’t merit consideration. Since she doesn’t take alternatives into account, she’ll never come up with a novel idea for contending with the disease.

This “knowing” creates another vulnerability for experts: They dismiss potential threats from adversaries as silly ideas. We’re quite certain that dentists pushed aside the idea of tooth whitening two decades ago. After all, their job was about oral health care. Their good dentistry training meant caring for the teeth and gums–not making teeth look like pearls. Meanwhile, their customers were thinking about their teeth as part of their image and wanted ways to improve their smiles. They were willing to pay for it, but the experts were not listening. Yep, four out of five dentists were wrong.

But we do need experts. No one can deny experts are critical to exceptional results, and every business should have them. So, as an innovation leader, how do you keep your experts (and yourself) from unwittingly snubbing the unmet needs that could lead to improved and more profitable services and products?

1. Don’t assume. This may be the hardest one of all. Of course you know what consumers want. You have been in the industry for a long time and you would not have earned your fancy title without knowing, right? Well, maybe. But the fact remains you aren’t the typical consumer of your product or service. (When was the last time you went through normal channels to purchase it?) So, swallow hard and begin by saying, “I don’t know everything.” For extra credit: Believe—as we do—that Mark Twain was right when he said: “It ain’t so much the things we don’t know that get us into trouble. It’s the things we know that just ain’t so.” Be willing to challenge everything you currently believe to be true.

2. Listen with your eyes. Before you start listening, watch. Get outside your office and act like an anthropologist. Spend time with your customers and watch them use your products or services. Do they have to use scissors, knives, or their teeth on your “easy open” package? Do they go out for coffee while waiting for your app to load? For extra credit: Bring along a couple of your team members who will observe as well. Compare notes. You will be shocked at how differently you see the situation.

3. Look to outside experts. We have no doubt people will share their opinions, but we are a little concerned you may not hear the words they choose. Your expert brain will subconsciously interpret their wishes using your own language (i.e., “Of course I heard him. He said he needed whole life insurance”). This, of course, ties back to our first point about not assuming you know–and not reinterpreting–what customers are wishing.

For extra credit: Play back to outside experts the specific words your customers used when they expressed their wishes. We bet experts from outside your industry will suggest products, services, and business models you wouldn’t have considered.

4. Ask yourself what you’ve learned. If you come away from an interaction with a potential customer and find yourself saying, “I knew all that,” you did something wrong. Keep going until you hear something new. If you can’t seem to hear anything new, find someone else on your team to do the listening. For extra credit: Set a goal of two new insights per interaction.

This brings us back to the original point. Experts often have a hard time listening like entrepreneurs. Where an entrepreneur will see an opportunity for a new product, service, or business model, an expert will note the three to four undeniable facts that make a challenge insurmountable. It usually takes months–not years–for the entrepreneur to launch the business that proves the expert wrong.

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