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One of the most important stakeholders in your innovation and improvement efforts is often the person who’s least involved – your customer. Many businesses falter at getting customer input, stating that it’s too hard for them to reach the people they need to talk to. There’s also a deeper fear involved – that their customer won’t like their innovation, and will lead them to something dull and less “innovative.” Yet these early customer insights can provide a less risky path to sustainable growth for your business than going it alone.

This is a common scenario with small businesses who feel they just don’t have time to involve their customers in their improvement efforts. For example, a small retailer might decide — with no customer input — that since all the big box stores sell online, they need to be able to do it too. They feel they look dated without an online store and are missing out on big revenue opportunities. Businesses big and small are filled with these kind of “me too” plays. They miss the bigger opportunity to differentiate and develop a competitive advantage that comes from a type of customer engagement called “co-creation”.

Co-creation actively engages your customer to create a value rich experience that solves their problem.

Think of building a solution like solving a puzzle. Many businesses go it alone, toiling away for weeks until they’ve put the solution puzzle together from their insider perspective. They show it to their customer saying, “Here, I’ve completed this puzzle for you. What do you think?” Their customers may love it, they may hate it or they may tell you they don’t even need it. It’s a big gamble. Co-creation is a much less risky and more rewarding path.

When you use co-creation to solve your puzzle, you start by identifying the big pieces of your solution, the features that you might include. Then you sit with your customer to understand how they would put the pieces together to solve a problem or complete a task. This last part is key. Before you start co-creating, you will present a clear idea of who you are helping to do what. Think of this like the picture on the front of the puzzle box. It presents your vision for the solution you are building.

Before they dive into your puzzle, confirm that this is, in fact, a pain point for your customer. With each customer interaction, refine this message and refine the puzzle pieces. When you start, you might just have a paper prototype, and the name of five different features on separate pieces of paper. Ask your customers to put the pieces in order, showing you how they would use each feature to help complete their task. Take notes on each piece. If they won’t use a feature, throw it out. Give them a blank piece of paper to fill in with features you haven’t thought of. Tear pieces in half if they can help you break it down into smaller feature details.

To be specific, follow these seven steps with your customer to develop an innovative solution.

Steps to Co-Creation

  1. Establish your vision – who are you going to help, and what will you help them do?
  2. Create a blue print – this is how you will help, broken into smaller pieces or features.
  3. Capture each piece on a separate piece of paper – draw a picture or use adjectives to describe that piece’s value to your customer.
  4. Present your vision to your customer – confirm that this is something they need help with and if not, ask why or what task they do need help with.
  5. Give your customer the scrambled pieces and some blank pieces of paper and a pen – ask them to arrange the pieces to form a complete picture that helps them with their task. Ask them to discard pieces they don’t need and add ones they do need.
  6. Ask them to start to fill in the details – what would be included in this piece? Have them draw their ideas or capture the words they use to describe it.
  7. Refine and repeat

Putting Co-Creation into Practice

How would this work in practice? Let’s say you’re the owner of a small retail store, looking to grow your exposure to local customers and tourists who visit your downtown. Your vision might be, “I want to help locals and visitors find and buy products in my store.” Note that your vision is stated in terms of what your customers want to achieve by engaging with you, not in terms of a solution. Your vision is not, “I want to build an online store!”

On slow days, intercept customers on the street or when they come into your store asking, “I’m exploring how I can help you better discover the treasures hidden in my store.” As you sit down with customers, present your vision to see if it resonates with them. Ask them what they are looking to buy, and if they mention something that you sell, ask them if they know you sell it. Then present the pieces – ability to see items you sell on your website, ability to buy items directly from your website, ability to buy items online from a marketplace like Amazon, ability to be notified via email or social media about new items, etc. Give them more paper and a pen, and ask them to sketch their ideas for you. Ask them which features are more important. Ask them why, why, why with each suggested change.

The coolest part of this? You will identify things that you can easily do, that no one else does, and you won’t waste a single penny on developing something that your customers have no use for. And they will reward you with their loyalty.

Want some help seizing this opportunity for your business? Send us an email and we can talk through how it would work for you.

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