Turn Your Customers Into Innovators

In Auckland, there’s some discussion now about building a light rail system. Like many topics that are open for public discussion, interested residents can have their say in online forums, and of course they do – with comments like this:

  • “From building face to building face, all Dominion Road stations would have 21m of width to play with. We can fit a central island platform if we want.”
  • “If we absolutely have to keep through traffic in both directions, then we cannot have cycle, general, and LRT lanes at those three of four locations, and for 100m or so, cyclists will have to share the lane with motorists.”
  • “I would envisage the parking lane stopping at a station/stop and the drive lane moving over to it so the platform could be where the drive lane is.”

But these residents didn’t just make their comment in writing. They demonstrated their ideas in pictures, like this: They are using the Streetmix service, which allows local councils to publish a proposed transport layout online, which anybody can then adjust – directly from their Web browser – to contribute their suggestions. Then, when Auckland Transport starts work designing the light rail layout, they can take all these ideas into account.

That’s what being “customer-centric” really means.

There’s a lot of talk now about businesses needing to be more “customer-centric”. That’s good, but what does that really mean?

It’s not just about customer feedback surveys and your Net Promoter Score.
It’s not just about delivering better experiences.
It’s not just about customer empathy mapping and customer journey mapping.

All those things are useful and valuable, but they still treat the customer as somebody outside your business.

Being customer-centric means bringing your customers inside, and involving them earlier in your internal processes.

In the past, there was a clear “wall” between you and your customers, with your team inside the wall and customers outside. You engaged with customers only in a narrow band of interactions – such as marketing campaigns, sales meetings, feedback surveys, customer support, and of course the sales transaction itself.

But that isn’t enough anymore.

In our more social, highly-connected, information-rich world, the most successful organisations break down this wall and let customers in.

Turn your customers into innovators.

Your best customers already have years of experience using your products and services, so why wouldn’t you draw on that experience when designing them? That wasn’t easy to do in the past, but technology makes it much easier now.

If you can provide easy-to-use tools for them to provide design input (these are known as “mass-customisation toolkits” or “MC toolkits”), your customers will gladly help out. An example is the Streetmix service above.

Of course, your customers aren’t design experts, so they might suggest design ideas that just won’t work. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ask them for any ideas at all!

Great design is a combination of experience and expertise.

In the past, you relied on your internal resources for both, but now you can call on your customers for their experience. And then add your expertise to make it happen.


Of course, it’s not enough to just ask your customers for their ideas – you also need to use them! And that might mean changes to your systems, processes, and even your team culture. So it’s not as simple as clicking your fingers today and magically making this happen overnight.

In the Harvard Business Review article “Customers as Innovators: A New Way to Create Value”, authors Stefan Thomke and Eric von Hippel suggest these five steps for turning your customers into innovators:

  1. Develop a user-friendly tool kit for customers.
  2. Increase the flexibility of your production processes.
  3. Carefully select the first customers to use the tool kit.
  4. Evolve your tool kit continually and rapidly to satisfy your leading-edge customers.
  5. Adapt your business practices accordingly.

But that was written more than 15 years ago, and now that process is way too slow! You might be able to find a toolkit (rather than developing your own), you can open it up to all customers (not just a few), and you will have to adapt your business practices much faster now.

The most important first step is to make the decision today to be more customer-centric, and set that direction for your future.

If you would like my help, please get in touch. In my Think Sharper masterclass and executive mentoring, we examine six different touchpoints in the customer journey where you can involve them as innovators.


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