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Customer Engagement Product Innovation

Turning Customers Into Product Innovation Machines

Lego, Gillette, DeWalt, and Shopify are among those companies that systematically use customer input to supercharge product success

Even though so much of digital transformation is focused on improving customer relations, many enterprises still suffer from innovation navel-gazing. They seek breakthroughs from within, without truly tapping into the most valuable external source of new product ideas: their customers.

That’s a big mistake in this digital age, where customer experience (CX) is increasingly vaunted as the top factor for predicting long-term viability. According to Gartner researchers, within a couple of years 81% of marketing executives overwhelmingly believe that CX will be their biggest competitive differentiator. Troublingly, though, a study by PwC shows that fewer than half of US consumers think the companies they do business with offer a good customer experience.

Customer experience isn’t just about packaging or marketing. It starts first and foremost with the product. If the product doesn’t deliver the goods, so to speak, then all of the excellent customer service and marketing in the world isn’t going to save the experience.

For enterprises willing to listen, the good news is customers can directly offer insights that could spur “lightning-in-a-bottle” concepts for killer new products or even whole product lines.

When companies develop a framework for listening, customers are often willing to offer opinions, feedback, and ideas for free. After all, they usually have a vested interest in your product’s success. They want you to win because they want to see that new product or feature made available.

“Users are the pioneers,” said Eric von Hippel, professor of technological innovation at the MIT Sloan School of Management, in a fascinating interview about the process of invention. “And there’s a very important reason for that. Users have their own need and simply care that their need is served.”

The trick is that organizations have to be ready to listen, ingest, and act on those ideas in a meaningful way. Through concepts like design thinking, co-creation, social following, customer idea portals, and community building, a growing contingent of enterprises are endeavoring to pay attention to customer ideas in a systematic way.

Following are four examples in action.


It’s only fitting that a brand built around customer creativity would welcome input for new products with open arms. The block-making company engages its loyal customer base and injects new product ideas into its pipeline through a program called Lego Ideas.

The program runs a fan-powered site where users propose new product ideas, which are then voted on by the community as an initial vetting process. If a proposed product reaches 10,000 votes, then it is eligible to be reviewed by the company, which considers it for production. Product creators whose ideas are accepted then receive a 1 percent royalty for all sales.

It’s a genius idea that bolsters the brand and bakes in marketing and market researchfor these new products right out of the gate.


Social listening tools that monitor how customers talk about brands on social media channels tend to be implemented first to monitor brand reputation and potential customer service or product quality issues. But some brands are taking social listening to the next level by using it to help drive new product development.

Gillette offers a shining example of this with an assisted razor product that had its genesis in social listening. The designers of Gillette Treo developed the product after picking up on social conversations by caregivers who were struggling to shave those who could no longer do so themselves.

From there they were off to the races, using lean innovation principles to rapidly develop a product in about 18 months. Introduced last year, the Gillette Treo was recently a finalist in the 2018 Innovation by Design awards.


Power tools manufacturer DeWalt estimates that it has saved nearly $6 million in research costs in the five-plus years it has run the DeWalt Insights Forum. The forum is a feedback community that pulls heavily from both its professional power tool users and its DIY consumer users. Counting 12,000 members strong, the forum helps the company decide on which new products to roll out, how to refine existing products, and troubleshoots features along the way.


Focused on servicing small businesses with e-commerce products and services, Shopify has been a stock market darling of late, with tremendous growth in 2018. A big part of that investor story is the firm’s commitment to constantly refining its products and rolling out innovative new features. According to Shopify’s product gurus, part of the fuel driving that innovation comes from the connection the company makes between its customer support function and its product management arm. That responsibility falls to its Product Support Network (PSN) team, which is solely dedicated to acting as a liaison between the two.

In practice, the team “embeds itself on product teams and acts as an intermediary between Support and Product, to help inform product decisions,” writes Morgan McCunn, a product manager at the firm. She explains how, among other functions, the PSN performs product deep dives in which it will take a sample of 100-plus support interactions for a specific product over a specific time frame and review each one to observe trends and new opportunities.

Bringing in this kind of unsolicited feedback enables the company to mine product ideas directly from the customers who use Shopify regularly, without any additional work from these users.


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