Listening to the Silence of the Customer: How to Be a Fly on the Wall

In previous blog posts, I’ve spoken about the importance of stepping into the shoes of your customer as a key step in becoming more innovative. In fact, this is a critical difference between what I call your company’s execution engine and its innovating engine. The execution engine, which carries out your daily operations, is all about problem-solving. The innovating engine is all about problem-finding—so that new solutions can be developed that will create enormous new value for the customers of tomorrow. To find these often-unseen problems, you must embrace a customer-side view of your business—a view that is quite different from the supplier-side view, which most of us operate with as a matter of ordinary routine. And embracing a customer-side view of your business is easier said than done. Learning to hear the voice of the customer is the first challenge. You need to develop empathy, to avoid any feelings of complacency or defensiveness, and to master the vocabulary that customers will use to describe their needs, wishes, and concerns—which is probably quite different from the vocabulary you use internally, and may point to innovations quite different from the ones you might think up on your own. One of my favorite sayings that captures this dynamic is the recommendation, “Fall in love with the customer’s problems, not with your solutions.” So hearing the voice of the customer is difficult enough. But even more difficult is learning to listen to what I call the Silence of the Customer. This is about “hearing” messages that customers are unable to express, perhaps because they don’t know the messages themselves, or maybe because they don’t think the message is one that you need or want to hear. To understand the Silence of the Customer, you need to broadly understand the life of the customer, including the jobs they are trying to do. When you manage to do this, you find yourself uncovering new problems, unexpressed needs, and latent desires—which opens up amazing new room for innovating. One of my favorite stories of hearing the Silence of Customer relates to a simple but very important product found in every English home—the common teakettle. The Dutch company Philips Electronics had long made teakettles for the British market. However, their share of the market was stagnant, and the company wondered whether there was anything they could do to expand it. Customers surveys didn’t reveal any unmet needs that tea drinkers were eager to have met. So members of a consulting team (one of them a friend of mine) actually decided to spend time living in customers’ homes. In effect, each consultant became a “fly on the wall,” watching how the teakettles (and other Philips home products) were being used. After a few days, one member of the team noticed a problem that no customer had ever complained about: the limescale from the tap water that accumulates in the kettle. (One writer describes limescale as “that hard, chalky residue . . . left behind by hard water that contains above average levels of dissolved minerals.”) When limescale piles up in your kettle, it affects the flavor of your tea—and nothing matters more to any proper English man or woman than the flavor of their tea! It turned out that customers were well aware of the limescale issue, but they’d never thought it was a problem for kettle manufacturers to solve. Instead, it was an issue they would complain about to the local water authorities (usually without result). But having penetrated the Silence of the Customer, Philips decided to tackle the problem themselves. They developed a new kettle with a mouth filter to capture the limescale as the water was poured into the cup of tea. As a result, Philips re-energized their market share in the UK market, with many customers replacing their old teakettles with the new, filter-equipped models. Actually moving in to the home of your customer is not the only method you can use to listen to the Silence of the Customer. In my book Built to Innovate, I describe several other techniques. The crucial first step is to recognize the importance of the silence itself—and the importance of diving deeper to understand the unheard message that silence may be trying to convey.

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