How Talking to Your Customers Drives Innovation

You can give customers what they really need by breaking down the barriers between them and your product team.

As an entrepreneur, seeing your product gain traction for the first time is a rush. The early years of ContextMedia were some of the most exciting. During the summer of 2006, as rising juniors in college, we decided to act on a business idea we felt passionately about: bringing technology into the consumer healthcare space to educate and empower patients with better information during their medical visits.

We cobbled together some off-the-shelf solutions along with open-source content to bring our minimum viable product to market quickly. We drove around town pitching our product to physicians, naively confident that we knew from the patient’s perspective what would work well, having each had first-hand experiences with family members living with a chronic condition.

At the time, I frequently recited the tall tale attributed to Henry Ford: that if you asked people what they wanted, they would have said, “faster horses.”

We invested hundreds of hours in conversations with healthcare professionals who turned us away (and a few early adopters who signed up to try our product). Those rough initial conversations taught us an important lesson that we still hold valuable: that direct user feedback on product specifications makes our product more attractive to future customers. Being a bootstrapped startup, we didn’t spend money to create a separate research and development (R&D) department. We had our R&D right in front of us: It was our customers. So we rejuvenated our business model to focus on customer experience and empower our team to transform their feedback into innovation.

As a result, while we spent our first six years as a one-product firm, in the past three years, we’ve launched three new products that will soon account for the majority of our $200 million revenue. Although we’re not a startup anymore — with 80,000 healthcare professionals and 250 million patient visits utilizing our products during physician appointments — this method scales, and you can use it to continue building products that your customer needs. Here’s how:

Turn to Your Customer-Facing Teams for Feedback

To maintain the flow of feedback, we charge our frontline sales and account managers to communicate openly with our customers regarding their experience with our products. The end user has amazing ideas on how their workflow can be improved. Their suggestions were often even more practical and actionable than the ideas we generated ourselves.

In a large organization, the founder becomes fairly distant from the customer day to day, so it’s necessary to create processes to ensure customer feedback is collected regularly and shared internally. We accomplish this in a few ways. Our leadership team is assigned a goal and hired from backgrounds of product management. During the new hire onboarding experience, we ask each addition to our team to suggest one way we can improve after their initial 30 days at the company. We have also built in customer feedback channels within our customer relationship management systems, Net Promoter Score tracking and Slack chat tools.

Most importantly, this feedback is shared with transparency through monthly newsletters, quarterly townhalls and sharing stories when direct customer conversations led to a new feature, or better still, a new product, to encourage others and demonstrate our commitment to said method of innovation. Collecting direct feedback from customers isn’t just a nice-to-have, it has become the foundation of our research methodology and product launches.

Ask the Right Questions

When we first aggregated all the input from our customers, we realized that we needed to solicit feedback with purpose. Not all feedback is helpful. If you build rocking chairs, it isn’t helpful to have a customer tell you they want a recliner. So, what do you ask?

We specifically find out what their pain points are — not just what they want — and what the root of these pain points is. We have digital tablets and interactive wallboards deployed in physician practices in all 50 states with high user engagement measures. This means that our customers know our product fairly well, so when soliciting feedback, it’s not enough to ask what the customers don’t like; we have to take it a step further to find out why they don’t like it, and what type of improvement would make their experience better. By identifying those features and defining how to make them a reality, your team can walk away from these conversations with action items instead of just ideas.

Identify the Scale of the Feedback

When approaching an innovation that was suggested by your customers, think critically about how many customers have this same feedback, and how possible changes would benefit all of your customers. There will always be one-off issues, but if your frontline team is hearing about this pain point consistently, that’s an indication that the problem is impacting most of your customers.

Identifying the scale of the feedback is also important because it informs your action plan and resource allocation toward that request. If it’s an isolated incident, it’s possible that you don’t need to overhaul the entire product. If it’s a bigger pain point, you can create an appropriate timeline for implementation by working with your customer-facing teams.

Empower Your Teams to Drive Change

We’ve made it easy for our sales executives and account managers to drive change by giving them a direct line of communication with our product team. We have chosen this direct interaction in place of funneling feedback through dedicated product managers to allow brainstorming to happen cross-sector and through multiple vantage points. At any given time, ContextMedia’s customer is only one degree of separation from our product team, which means we can innovate with purpose and speed. This means no barriers for change, and no dilution of ideas.

Trust your team to drive this innovation and make it clear that they are empowered to do so. If you break down the barriers between your customer and the product team, with the right feedback, you can build products that your customers really, truly need.

Besides, Henry Ford never actually said the quote about faster horses. Either way, listening to his customers would’ve done him some good.

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Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC) is an invite-only organization comprised of the world's most promising young entrepreneurs. YEC members generate billions of dollars in revenue and have created tens of thousands of jobs.
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