“I Love Your Product, But…”: Making your product better, thanks to your customers

by Erin McDermott.

Teresa and Erik Bryan started out as their own company’s guinea pigs.

The Bay Area-based Bryans are weekend warriors, often hitting California’s mountains for rock-climbing escapes. But after suffering through more than a few Monday mornings in their office cubicles (by training, he’s an electrical engineer, and she’s a Ph.D.-level biochemist) with a smoldering red sunburn from the previous days’ adventures, they decided there had to be a way to prevent the painful afterglow of their outings.

Their solution: Da Brim, a line of detachable helmet visors that fits all kinds of outdoor headgear, allowing air to flow through the vents while still keeping the face in a UPF-50 shade. They launched their company in January, added models for equestrian and cycling, and quickly discovered new opportunities for their gear for paddle and snow sports. (And you may have seen a Da Brim on the “Today” show recently, too.)

How did they find entrée to these new niches? As a new company, they paid very close attention to their customer-service inquiries. With each shipment, they included a slip thanking the customer, asking for comments and suggestions and included their email contact information. They’ve gotten a lot of responses.

“Customers are the most valuable resource for product development because they often tell you what they need and why,” Teresa Bryan says. The couple has just finished working on an add-on for recumbent bicycle riders, after listening to a complaint from a customer. “Simple as it sounds, people actually really like to talk to people. We get calls where people say ‘I love your product, but I have this problem.’ Or ‘I have this special need.’ And although the recumbent cyclists may be a small portion of the overall market, they like our product. And if we can make it better for them, maybe we can capture more of the market share.”

Criticism is great if it’s taken for what it can be—constructive. Your customers can be a tremendous resource for your research and development needs. But are you able to hear the opportunities within their feedback?

Short of employing Voice of the Customer software or other elaborate technological solutions, there’s plenty a small business owner can do to tap their customers for R&D. But many say the best solution usually involves those two elegantly simple devices on opposite sides of the human head.

Here are tips on what to keep in mind when you’re listening to your customers for new ideas.

Recognize each individual voice

Customers “get annoyed when any company—large or small—tries to sell them the ‘same’ product or service (or send the same email) that they give to everyone else,” says Michael Hinshaw, a customer-experience strategist and managing director at MCorp Consulting in San Francisco. He’s also the co-author, with Bruce Kasanoff, of the new book Smart Customers, Stupid Companies: Why Only Innovative Companies Will Thrive, and How to Be One of Them.

“In other words, it’s about personalization—which is based on the ability to understand customer differences,” Hinshaw explains. “If you understand and acknowledge both the differences and similarities between people, you can approach them with relevant questions or offers, through relevant channels, in ways that drive real-world relationships. The more literally a company uses a customer’s information to provide unique benefits to that customer, the more likely that they will positively influence a customer’s behavior. Most companies ignore or minimize the second step. That’s a big mistake, and big companies make it all the time.”

And don’t forget to look at your social-media pages. Take to heart how your company or your products are referenced on Twitter, Facebook, and other sites. Understand what customers are asking for that you’re not providing.

Look closely at the questions you’re asking

Michelle Gower says she’s changed how she approaches the initial feedback process from those seeking her help from her Raleigh, N.C.-based WordPressmentoring and content management consultancy. After a prospective client broke down in tears at their first consultation while telling her about a soured relationship with her former marketing manager, Gower, owner of Gower Power Consulting, says those tears were an eye-opener.

The money [my clients] spend and the choices they make seriously impact their personal lives,” Gower points out. “It’s not just that they might have to lay someone off—this could be what keeps their kid from going to college the next year. Now I listen for those triggers and hot buttons to see how these people operate in their office—and out of it.”

She also identified the questions to ask clients to guide her afterward. “Ask them directly how working with you makes them feel,” Gower says. “Why do they refer people to you? What’s the one thing they would change about your services if they were in charge? What would they make sure never changed?”

Frank Dale, president and chief executive of Compendium, an Indianapolis-based content-marketing-platform company, says he learned to ask the questions that give him the most important insights from “Revenue Coach” Kristin Zhivago. Among them, asking clients “If you were in charge, what’s the first thing you’d do?” and “Are we charging you a fair price?”

Engage customers in your decision-making process

As Dale was taking the helm of Compendium, he says he called 100 of its customers to feel them out about what they thought the 23-employee firm should be doing differently. The response gave rise to what’s become known as Innovation Day—a one-day event when everyone on the Compendium staff works to identify and implement an improvement to their product.

Employees start by submitting ideas for a change or improvement that could be accomplished within one workday. From 10 to 15 submissions, the three most popular prospects are selected; each idea then gets a team, comprised of a mix of customer service reps, salespeople, and engineers, to develop their “hack” for a full workday. Employees are encouraged to call clients (and prospective customers) to get them to weigh in on their ideas. At day’s end, each team gets 10 minutes to present their proposal to a panel of experts—made up of Compendium customers and industry experts. “They then make their case—what’s the evidence from customers? Would they use it and be willing to pay for it?” Dale says. “There’s no room for ‘I can’t go talk to this department’ and so on—we’re looking right there to emphasize what the market needs.”

So far, Dale says his crew has had four of these events. “The employees love it, because it gives them room to stretch personally and professionally.  And they get a chance to develop in a risk-free environment.”

More important, Dale says, is the response from clients. “One emailed me to say ‘The reason we do business with you is because of stuff like this.’” He says new ideas are sometimes simple things that you wouldn’t expect, or the way a company might intend it. “You would think that companies are able to show that they ‘eat their own dog food,’ but not everyone uses tools the same way. The goal is to get your prospect to understand you.”

Teresa Bryan agrees.

She and Erik altered the styling of their equestrian helmet visors, after hearing from horse-riding customers who loved the curvature of their cycling brim. They adapted and sold out Da Brims in one of the colors in three weeks and are nearly backordered on the rest.

“One of the best things about owning your own business is the satisfaction you get from knowing you created that product and it’s working really well and making someone else’s life better. It’s really great.”

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