Wandering Around with Your Customers

This past year, a colleague of mine went to a Staples office products store in a small town in the California mountains. His intent was to find a quick, cost-effective way to make copies of a picture of his kids for a Christmas letter. He had one copy of the picture. He approached the self service machine and started making individual copies to cut and paste in a 9-per-page layout to make the final run. A Xerox service rep just happened to be at the store at the same time. He saw what my colleague was doing, took the picture, pushed a few buttons in a little known “multiple image” section of the keypad, and presto! Multiple copies, quick, easy, cheap.

“How did you do that?”

“Simple. Just push this button, enter the number of images, choose a layout, and go.”

“I never know these machines had a feature like that!”

“Hmmm. That’s interesting. I never thought about that…”

Now, did this service rep learn something? That an otherwise competent copier user could not, would not have ever found out about a cool feature? Maybe could there be something to help customers learn what features are available and how to use them? This little bit of carpet time, if used properly, could help Xerox really connect an innovation already in place to its customers. Or it could have just as easily been used to develop another one. Or, with a lot of companies, it might have simply gone to waste.

The innovation safari is a “many on one” or “many on many” approach usually requiring some organization and expenditure. They’re great, and focus groups are great, too. But I believe that all employees in an organization – top to bottom – should wander around. Wander around to see their products being presented, sold, and used in the marketplace. Wander around to find very real, very personal, one-on-one observations on how customers use, don’t use, or perceive your products and your product experience.

You should wander around on your own. Employees should be encouraged to do this on their own. During business trips. During family shopping trips where it makes sense. Visit some retailers. Strike up a conversation with someone on the plane to ask them what they think of your product. Or a competitor’s product.

It doesn’t just stop with the carpet time itself. You, and all employees, should have an intracorporate venue to download all of your experiences and observations, good or bad, for others to see. Intracorporate web portals like HP’s “Garage” or the use of Bright Ideas’ “Webstorms” internal idea collection portal, as Adobe and many others do, will help with this. Trip reports also work. But employees should always be encouraged to share their observations, whether formally or informally, within their organizations. Sooner or later, it gets into the mindset . Who can see the most interesting things about their customers? When these are the stories that are told at the water cooler, you know that carpet time has become part of your culture.