Why Customer Pain Points Provide the Roadmap to Innovation

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Many organizations invest in ideas when they really should be investing in solving customer problems.  The distinction may seem subtle.  Of course our ideas are solutions! But if you approach innovation with a focus on identifying and relieving pain points rather than creating solution ideas, the difference in what you produce is immense.

For example, in design thinking, we often start with a how-might-we statement:

How might we help <description of our customer>

solve <customer pain point>

so that they can <description of the task they want to perform>?”

  Yet often when I work with teams, they change this into, “How might we provide <description of their solution> to customers …”  The how-might-we statement is a focal point for design, and starting with the solution locks the team into this solution, preventing them from exploring new ways to help their customers.  Those new ways to solve customer problems are the gateway to innovation.

This may seem obvious but it is amazing how many companies get it wrong.  As many as 95 percent of new products introduced each year fail, according to Cincinnati research agency AcuPoll.  These are products that businesses invested their heart and soul in, and their customers said, “No Thanks!”

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In our previous post we told the story of a business leader trying to decide which idea their organization should invest in.  Like many companies who want to innovate, they held a contest to solicit ideas.  And they were underwhelmed with the results. Nothing stood out and said, “wow, this will delight our customers!” Instead, their innovation contest should be generating customer pain points to solve.  Doing so would create an organization filled with customer problem solvers.

So how do you create a culture of problem solving?  Try these three steps, and let me know what you come up with.  Note, this works for internal (process) innovation as well as external (service) innovation:

  1. Ask your team to come up with customer pain points that need to be solved. These should be task based – our customers are trying to do something and it is hard, expensive, complex, etc.  Do not let anyone present a pain point that has not been confirmed with customers!  This is your measure of desirability.
  2. Next they need to explore whether your business is the right place for this problem to be solved. What operational capabilities or industry position  makes you the ideal problem solver?  This is your measure of feasibility.
  3. Last, they should explore viability – how will solving this pain point allow your organization to grow? Why is this the right thing for you to pursue now?

Notice that none of these steps ask the team to present a solution.  It will be hard for them to resist, but resist they must.  Once the customer pain points can be clearly articulated, along with why your organization is the ideal, or preferably the *only* one to solve this problem, then and only then can you start to design solutions.

One last point: Design is an iterative process and I don’t want to give the impression that this exercise is a “one and done”.  As you talk to customers on a regular basis, you can repeat this exercise, building deeper understanding for their pain points and the ways your organization can alleviate them … and deliver delight.


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