Corporate Innovation Requires Customer Intimacy

One of the reasons corporations struggle with innovation and new product creation as compared to startups is lack of customer intimacy. Startups don’t have a choice but to be close to their customers. Startups don’t have any customers at the beginning, so much of their product validation work is also sales. Not having customers, from a new product and innovation perspective, is a good thing because it forces customer intimacy.

So, why don’t corporations get and stay close to customers to innovate and build new products alongside customers? It is because of ego and fear.

Getting close to customers requires vulnerability corporations perceive as weakness. After all, corporations are supposed to have the answers, right? They are supposed to know more and be smarter than their customers. They are supposed to know where their industry is headed and what customers want. In reality, customers don’t expect corporations to have all of the answers, but to care enough to ask the right questions to get to the right answers. Corporations struggle with the vulnerability, openness, and transparency it takes to ask the right questions because of the perceived weakness of doing so.

Corporations become consumed with everything except being close to their customers. Corporations create initiatives to represent customers in lieu of actually getting and staying close to customers. Voice of Customer (VOC) initiatives are the best example of this. If a company needs an initiative to remind them and force them to get and stay close to their customers, they are missing the fundamental problem. VOC initiatives are a band-aid and should be a wakeup call for any company currently implementing or executing one. In fact, a company should be embarrassed to need a VOC initiative. Corporations will defend VOC initiatives, as we’re too big, we’re in too many markets, we have too many customers, etc. These are excuses rooted in ego. Every company, regardless of size, must stay close to it’s customers to be able to provide products and/or services their customers value. This is not an epiphany and it isn’t new. Sadly, this is what happens if corporations aren’t intentional about it.

Corporations try to leverage startup methodologies and processes such as the Lean Startup, but with little success. The components of The Lean Startup and other startup methodologies and process such as fail fast, iterate early & often, and design sprints don’t provide the desired outcomes because the most fundamental part is missing…being close to customers. Corporations implement some of these approaches, but they do them in a vacuum. The Lean Startup could really be titled, “Get and Stay Close To Your Customers.” Whether you are a startup, a mid-market company, or a corporation, the one thing that matters more than everything else around creating products customers want and will use is getting and staying close to customers.

Successful innovation and product creation are not possible without customer intimacy. This is especially true at corporations where the mindset and perception of getting close to customers are more challenging. Companies that understand and execute on the importance of customer intimacy are the ones that are and will continue to be the most innovative and best at creating new products.

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