How does customer experience fuel innovation?

I was honored to be a guest on #innochat on Thursday, July 21. Innochat is a weekly Twitter chat (Thursdays, 9am PT) about innovation and covers a wide range of topics and angles. If you love talking innovation, make time for this chat every Thursday.

The topic on July 21 was one of my favorites: customer experience, of course. Not just customer experience, though, but how customer experience drives or fuels innovation. This is a hot topic. We want (need) to see companies innovate for the customer, but many companies still struggle with what that means, how to do it, and what it takes to truly be innovative; instead, they imitate. I think Kerry Bodine said it well in her 2013 Harvard Business Review article:

 Everyone talks about customer experience innovation, but no one knows quite what it is or how to attain it. In fact, when we ask customer experience professionals how they’re driving their innovation efforts, we find several misguided approaches that actually thwart differentiation and waste massive amounts of time and money in the process.

You’re not innovative if you imitate; innovation is all about creating a clear differentiation between you and the next guy. What value does your brand bring to the table that no other brand does? How does it make customers’ lives – and the jobs they are trying to do – easier?

The questions posed to the group were pretty straightforward, yet thought-provoking; they also seeded future #innochats, when the self-named “innocats” (love that) can dive deeper into customer experience innovation. This is an important topic with many different angles to cover. The questions we discussed were:

  1. What role do you think that customer experience plays in innovation?
  2. How does customer experience relate to user experience?
  3. What is the relationship between customer service and customer experience?
  4. How does the view of customer experience from the outside-in compare with the inside-out view?
  5. How do we balance the importance of customer experience with other issues?

For a transcript of the chat, visit Innochat and scroll to the bottom of the page.

Two really big (and key) things to think about as you look at your organization’s ability to innovate a great customer experience are your customers and your culture.

1. Understand your customers
In order to innovate for your customers, you need to engage with them, listen to them, understand who they are and so much more – but most importantly, you need to understand what they are trying to do: what task, what job, what they are trying to achieve.

People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole! -Theodore Levitt

2. Create a culture of innovation
The culture needs to allow employees to be creative and entrepreneurial. Don’t stifle new ideas and innovation. Allow employees to pose, develop, and try new ways of doing the same old thing. Encourage efficiency, simplicity, and killing old rules and making new ones. I can speak from experience when I say that that stifling creativity, growth, and innovation is painful and kills employee engagement quicker than anything.

A few years ago, I wrote about the Culture of Curiosity. Perhaps that’s a place to start. Advocating and driving such a culture throws inside-out and outside-in thinking aside for the moment and calls for upside-down thinking. Toss everything you know out the window for the moment, and think differently.

Around here, however, we don’t look backwards for very long. We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things, because we’re curious…and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths. -Walt Disney Company

If employees are constantly asking questions and being curious, they get to:

  • Learn more about their customers
  • Better understand customer needs and, more importantly, the jobs they are trying to do
  • Learn about partners, the market, emerging trends, etc.
  • Ideate and innovate
  • Create new/better products, features, and services
  • Eliminate processes and policies that are harmful to the experience
  • Change the way the company does business (for the better)
The problem is that, at a lot of big companies, process becomes a substitute for thinking. You’re encouraged to behave like a little gear in a complex machine. Frankly, it allows you to keep people who aren’t that smart, who aren’t that creative. -Elon Musk

If you keep doing the same thing, you’re going to keep getting the same results, right? With some of the statistics about customer experience as bad as they continue to be, I think companies are continuing to do the same thing. So it’s time to start asking some serious questions and not be afraid of the answers – or the consequences and changes as a result.

Innovation and change go hand in hand. That’s a good thing. Don’t stifle it.

Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower. -Steve Jobs