How To Go Inside Your Customer's Imagination

  • September 10, 2020

You know you are entering a world of whimsy when your vehicle pulls into an antique cobblestone parking lot, and you are greeted by a giant statue of a red ladies' high heel shoe. There is another one almost two stories high on the side of the 1905 building. You have arrived at the Craddock Terry Hotel in Lynchburg, Virginia. The building once housed the fifth largest shoe manufacturer in the country—the Craddock-Terry Shoe Company.

Once inside, your fun begins. The lobby is filled with historical artifacts, including the giant, antique factory safe. The front desk clerk introduces you to the dog concierge, Penny Loafer. You are encouraged to take Penny for a walk through the historical district nearby. But, sign up early since Ms. Loafer is very popular. In your shoe themed guest room, there is a colorful shoeshine box on your bed. It invites you to place it outside your hotel door before turning in, and your continental breakfast will be waiting for you early the next morning.

My wife and I were guests during the winter holidays. There was a small Christmas tree on our desk with a shoebox full of shoe-themed ornaments. Who could resist decorating your very own tree? We positioned it next to the fireplace in our guest room—a large living area filled with turn of the century antiques. We were enchanted. And, we talked for days afterward about when we could return.

Invite: Co-Creating with Customers Starts with an Ask

When a large, well-known pizza company conducted focus groups with customers around the country, one consistent question was a dreamer query—what could we do that no other pizza company is doing? Many of the meetings yielded a similar response: What else could you do with the pizza box? The company was expecting ideas only related to product, price, or process, not about an ancillary feature. Customer suggestions included turning the inside of the pizza box into a puzzle or fun Halloween mask or coloring book.

Matt Garofaio, owner of the Oconee Cellar near Lake Oconee, Georgia, decided to have a well-known bourbon brewery in Kentucky create a signature bourbon for him to sell in his upscale store. The brewery concocted five different distinctive options and sent them to Matt, each in a clear, numbered bottles. Now, how do you think Matt chose his special brand of nectar? He invited his customers to taste test each of the five bourbons and register their preference. Even with Covid-19 forcing a limitation on the number of customers in his store, Matt's co-creation with customers continues. So, how many customers do you think place orders for their "co-created" beverage? He currently is on his fifth signature bourbon. Customers will care when they share.

Invite customers to tell you about their hopes and aspirations, not just their needs and expectations. Jeff Immelt, when CEO of General Electric, held "Dreaming Sessions" with key customers. The goal was, together, to think about where their goals and relationships would be in 5-10 years. "If you had $200 million to $400 million to spend on R&D at GE, how would you prioritize it?'" You may not have $400 million to spark your customers' dreams, but finding ways for them to give voice to their hopes will enrich your inquiry into your customer's imagination.

Excite: Co-Creating with Customers is Ignited by Value

Customer imagination is a door opened only from the inside. It takes a valued partnership to nurture the safety for customers to put out their welcome mat. That, "come on in, let me show you my half-baked ideas" only happens if customers trust the worth to them or to a cause in which they believe. McDonald's is famous for its strict adherence to standards and factory-like discipline. However, the Egg McMuffin was not invented by corporate, but by one of their customers, a franchisee named Herb Peterson. You and I are customers of a franchise, but mere consumers to corporate.

Herb had a local blacksmith craft an iron ring that could enable an egg to be cooked in a perfect circle, the size of a bun and slice of Canadian bacon.

When he took the idea to CEO Ray Kroc, Kroc not only gave Herb the green light but also encouraged him to bring more ideas. Peterson coined McDonald's first national advertising slogan, "Where Quality Starts Fresh Every Day."

Vans Shoes really got started in March 1966 during its second week of operation. A customer complained to owner Paul Van Doren that the sneakers' colors were not bold.

He suggested she go to a local fabric store, pick out the cloth she liked, and he would make her kicks. The company's encouragement of customers to help with design and style has made Vans the largest manufacturer in the world of shoes for the skateboard world.

Unite: Co-Creation Partnerships are Egalitarian and Trustworthy

There are plenty of examples by which customers are invited to offer suggestions. Many of the Starbuck's features—splash sticks, pumpkin spice latte, cake pops, and Wi-Fi in the stores—came from customers, not from corporate. But co-creation partnerships encourage customers to put skin in the game, not just offer suggestions and ideas. It is an invitation to "come into the factory" and play an equal role.

Playtex, Evenflo, and Similac have all tweaked the hundred-year-old design of the baby bottle with better nipples, easier handles, and ways to minimize uncomfortable air intake. But Jason Tebeau took the baby bottle in a completely different direction. It all started when Jason's mom was babysitting.

Driving with a child in the car seat in the passenger seat, she got frustrated having to stop the car to reposition the baby bottle to stop the child from crying. Jason learned other parents had the same frustration with baby bottles—they were operationally parent-dependent.

Assembling a group of fifty babies with their parents in tow, together the parents and Tebeau observed babies interacting with bottles in various stages of the design process as assorted product challenges were solved.

At each phase, he interviewed, brainstormed, and listened to parents in focus groups reacting to each other about what they had observed. Their collaboration produced the popular Pacifeeder. Sold at retail outlets like Target and Amazon, the bottle has been so well-liked, many babies prefer it over the traditional "lie in mommy's lap" variety. The customer—the babies and their parents—were intimately involved throughout the creation of this innovative product.

Organizations today need breakthrough products, services, and solutions to compete effectively. Too often, they rely on their R&D units supported by market research. Nailing what customers want has also become more challenging since today's customers are more complex, their needs ever-changing, and their expectations continually climbing. Forward-thinking enterprises are going inside the customer's imagination to discover inventive and valued offerings.

Chip R. Bell is a renowned keynote speaker and the author of several best-selling books. His newest book is Inside Your Customer's Imagination: 5 Secrets for Creating Breakthrough Products, Service and Solutions. This book is his sixth title with Berrett-Koehler.

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