Technology can be amazingly helpful -- except when it's not. Long ago referred to as the "productivity paradox," the gains in efficiency and effectiveness have not been evident in economic growth figures -- at a macro level. Contributory causes are productivity drains in setting up systems, fixing them, and overcomplicating work products.
At an organizational level, the gains can be substantial, however. Companies can take advantage of the access and immediacy that networked systems can provide, especially with customers. A key opportunity for innovation that improves business performance is in the customers' experience. Are there touch points in the ways the customer interacts with your organization that can be either expedited, eliminated, or enhanced?
You don't need a lightbulb to go off to be innovative. As Sawhney, Wolcott, and Arroniz (2006) noted in their Sloan Management Review 47(3): 78, there are at least "12 Different Ways for Companies to Innovate" -- and over the next several weeks, we will examine illustrations of each.
Of course, one is in new offerings, either products or services. A huge area of opportunity is in the realm of sustainability, i.e., reducing the environmental impact of your offerings. This impact should be evaluated all the way through the product or service's life cycle, from direct materials, to operations, to transportation and post-sales service. If you produce clothes, can you innovate to eliminate the need for dry cleaning? If you provide lawn service, can you branch into xeriscaping to reduce water consumption? If your offerings include polymers, can you switch to recycled plastics?
A related opportunity is called "upcycling," essentially taking recycling to a new level (pun intended!). Rather than dispose of waste to be recycled, consider how it might be repurposed with added value. I have a friend who builds furniture out of pallets. When I toured a Frito-Lay potato chip plant, I learned that they reclaim the starch removed from potatoes for clothing use. Instead of discarding the dough from the hole in the donut, Dunkin' Donuts created the Munchkin.
Product upgrades are an obvious opportunity for new offerings. But consider whether a downgrade might be of interest to new customers. Is there a simpler, lower-cost version of what you offer that might appeal to an audience that you are currently missing -- and to whom you might be able to up-sell in the future? Not only might that work in your local or domestic market, it may give you a way to introduce your products into developing countries. General Electric does it and calls it "reverse engineering." Instead of creating a product for the industrialized world (to eventually diffuse into developing countries), it innovates for the more basic needs in poorer countries.
So you don't have to wait for a lightbulb to go off for that next great product. Be deliberate and think about ways to extend your existing offerings and create new revenue streams.
It seems that the fourth time is the charm. Or so we hope.
My husband's windshield cracked. They came to replace it. Then they came back to fix the rearview mirror. Then they came back to replace the windshield again. They have now ordered a third windshield from the car manufacturer and we are hoping that the fourth time they come, he will have a windshield and a mirror. Four times. Not counting phone calls. Good thing my husband works from home.
We also had a problem with our cable TV tiling. While we were having the issue resolved, we thought we would upgrade the cable access for two other units. Not counting "no shows," not considering showing up late for two-hour windows, and not counting the repeated phone calls to the "help" line, we have had four visits from technicians. We now think we have three correctly operating televisions now, but only time will tell. (And the last technician left a mess in the wiring closet -- just saying.)
I wish these stories were the exception rather than the norm, but sadly, they are typical customer "service" experiences. And this issue is not limited to consumers, but also applies to businesses. Gallup reported a recent study of business-to-business (B2B) companies, 20% of the customers reported having a service -- and only 40% of them felt that their problems were solved satisfactorily.
In an earlier post, I introduced the concept of lean consumption, the idea of eliminating waste from customer interactions. My belief is that companies spend a lot of effort reducing waste in their internal processes in an effort to become lean -- but that they end up transferring some of that waste to the customer (e.g., creating rework, causing delays, and shifting ownership of the problem or experience to the customer).
In my most recent post, I stressed the importance of innovation -- which goes far beyond the idea of invention or new product creation. For example, you can create innovation in your customers' experience. What if your customers could track -- and even update -- the status of a request or a problem as easily as a that of a package with UPS? What if your service technicians were better trained in change management, so they could determine that making a change in one part of a system caused problems in other areas? What if your representatives could communicate in terms of benefits rather than features?
Have you walked through your business operations with the perspective of a customer? I'm not suggesting you become an Undercover Boss or a secret shopper, but that you step back and think about what your customers experience. Call your company with a problem. Reach out to past customers that have not done business with you for a while. Listen to new customers.
It is much less expensive to retain a customer than attract a new one. Make it easy for your customers to do business with you.
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