Put customers on your
product development team
YOUR CUSTOMERS CAN MAKE an important contribution to
your new product programme, either through recommen-
dations on direction, features and performance, or through
evaluation. Either way, their contribution can ensure that
your new products meet real market needs. Involving cus-
tomers in new product development can result in more
targeted products with a greater chance of success, while
at the same time strengthening relationships and creating
mutual benefits. Customers can also make an indirect con-
tribution when they use an online build-to-order system
(such as the Dell personal computer model where customers
effectively ‘build’ their own model). Allowing customers to
configure existing products gives valuable insight into real
needs and preferences – information that can feed into future
48 PART 1 Closer to your customers: the true measure of success
Involve customers at an early stage
If you are planning a new product or redeveloping an exist-
ing one, ask your customers for their views on the existing
product and what they would like to see in a new one. By
explaining your plans and involving customers in product
development, you can strengthen relationships and provide a
service that is mutually beneficial. Questions could include:
How can we improve the current product?
What problems need to be overcome?
What new features would customers welcome?
Do the plans represent an improvement?
Would customers make greater use of a product that
includes the features they have highlighted?
Customer evaluation, or beta testing, is well established in
the IT software industry. Customers test new products or
upgraded versions before they are released to the market.
They identify any problems in using the software, providing
valuable feedback on product performance. Any problems
or practical improvements can be incorporated before final
release of the new product. Although there are important
benefits to this type of collaboration, there are also risks.
First, the customer may be extremely disappointed with
Involving customers at an early stage of product
development is a key part of the research process.
Put customers on your product development team 49
the product if quality is poor. Second, there is a risk that
competitors could find out about your plans indirectly. The
quality issue is one that you should deal with: if a product
is not right, it should not be given to customers in any form
– it is not enough simply to promise future improvements.
The security risk of a leak to competitors can be minimised
through disclosure and confidentiality agreements, although
these provide no real guarantee. However, the advantages of
involving customers usually outweigh the risks, so evalua-
tion is worthwhile in most cases.
Another valuable practice from the IT industry is to pre-
announce new products. For example, a company will set a
number of release dates during the coming year when it will
release new versions of products. The company outlines the
new products and gives customers the opportunity to pro-
vide input to the development process. The major benefit for
customers is that they can align their own business devel-
opment plans to the release dates. They might, for example,
postpone a particular project until the latest version of a
product is released in six months’ time. However, some
companies have put themselves under unnecessary pressure
by trying to meet a series of pre-announced release dates.
The schedule may not allow proper time for development,
Announcing your product plans helps customers
formulate their own plans and smooths the way to a