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Disrupt Your Customer Relationships to Spark Innovation

WRITTEN BY Marc Benevento, Industrial Market Insight

Too often, industrial manufacturers fail to identify emerging customer needs because the same people have the same stale conversations with customers. Because new products and services will be in demand only if they solve significant customer problems, the ability to bring fresh perspective to conversations with customers is critical to new product success in the B2B world. There are a few simple things companies can do to disrupt the customer relationship and uncover unmet needs that lead to successful new products.

  1. Gather multiple viewpoints:
    Although there is likely to be a primary sponsor at a customer for your new product or service, the introduction of the product into manufacturing or operations will very likely impact many other functions, each of which may have veto power. Failing to identify and capture the needs of these functions may result in immediate rejection of a new product. For example, I have watched products approved by R&D and purchasing be refused by manufacturing groups because they were not compatible with the existing manufacturing infrastructure. Prevent this by disrupting your customer relationship and seeking perspectives from the many functional areas that will interact with your product or service. Talk to prospects as well as existing customers to understand why some companies elect to buy from the competition.

  2. Stop selling. Ask questions and listen:
    It may seem obvious, but when interviewing customers, make sure the customer is doing the talking. The functions that interact with customers most often—sales and technical service—are comprised of professionals trained to know their customers, conduct troubleshooting, and sell existing products. When probing for unmet needs, the goal is to do the exact opposite, which is to ask questions and listen. On many occasions, I’ve been accompanied by a salesperson who could not resist the urge to end an awkward silence and answer questions on behalf of a customer, costing us a learning opportunity.
    Disrupt the customer relationship by suspending selling and problem solving, and allowing the customer to talk about their manufacturing or operational challenges. If the customer isn’t doing the majority of the talking during the meeting, your company isn’t learning about new opportunities.

  3. Bring a fresh perspective:
    Sales and technical service personnel are required to be extremely knowledgeable about their customers and are often reluctant to ask questions they feel have obvious answers. It can therefore be difficult for people very familiar with an account to probe for customer needs. Questions cannot be answered if they are never asked. To avoid this trap, disrupt the customer relationship by bringing in a person who is less familiar with the account to conduct the interview. This can be a member of your central marketing group who is less familiar with the customer, or an outside resource. Newcomers have license to ask simple questions. I have seen this pay dividends on multiple occasions, where senior sales, technology, and marketing personnel have been surprised to learn about fundamental shifts to customer operations they had assumed to be stagnant. Bringing a new voice to the conversation ensures it will be fresh to both the customer and interviewers, which will often take the conversation to new, fruitful places.

In order to be successful with new products and services, disrupt the customer relationship to uncover unmet market needs. Central marketing staff or outside marketing resources can be great assets to change the dynamics of existing customer relationships. Bringing a new perspective will help reveal problems to be solved…the emerging and unmet customer needs, the spark that ignites innovation in products and services.

Marc Benevento is the founder and managing director of Industrial Market Insight, a consultancy focused on the needs of manufacturing companies seeking performance improvements and organic growth. Industrial Market Insight has tools and resources to help uncover and market needs and translate them into new business opportunities. For more information about Industrial Market Insight, please contact us.

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