When we seek to learn, we look for resources individually, and, if we are blessed to be working in an organization which invests in employee learning, we seek to make the most of available opportunities. Of course, organizations are replete with latent knowledge too, which if harnessed, is a great repository for employees to learn from. Another source of knowledge which the Learning and Development team does not frequently tap (unless a wise Operations executive is after you to do so), is the knowledge that customer interactions provide. It is strange, but true that very few organizations have any formal mechanism to learn from their customers. And yet, all the learning, all production in an organization is ultimately geared to attract the customer, but, opening a channel of learning for customers, nah! that infra digs! Well, this is an idea whose time has come for L&D.
Beyond Market surveys
Organizations have been picking the customer’s brains with market surveys, seminars, and, many other mechanisms for feedback. But, the time has arrived to switch over to feed-forward, rather than feedback, and, seek inputs even before your product or service is formalized. A typical example of this would be Yahoo Mail. Till some time ago, Yahoo Mail had ‘Beta’ written on top, suggesting that the product was not fully completed, but, was work in progress. Yahoo was learning from the usage patterns as to how customers operate emails.
This is known as the process of customer co-creation, one that involves engaging a potential customer in the development of new business offerings. Using prototypes, customers explore alternative futures and actively shape win-win propositions. It involves putting some small experiments in front of potential customers, observing their reactions, and, using the results to iterate your way to an improved offering.
“Customer co-creation is the process of engaging a potential customer in the development of new business offerings. Using prototypes, customers explore alternative futures and shape win-win propositions. It involves experiments in front of potential customers to iterate your way to an improved offering.”
It is also a great way to de-risk. Whenever an unfamiliar concept is introduced, you can expect that it will mostly go wrong. And, that is the reason why co-creation, by way of using low-cost, low-fidelity prototypes, is a means to learn and also hedge against creating a product for the market, which turns out to be a total dud.
Tips for getting started
There is no rocket science to effective customer co-creation—just a few simple principles. These have to do with picking the right customers to invite to your playgroup, giving them something worth playing with, and, listening attentively to their feedback.
1. Seek out customers with an interest: Any random customer may not suffice. The customer needs to be chosen for their interest in specific areas. For instance, if you have developed a learning game, it would not be very useful to lay customers from a mall and seek their involvement. It would instead be advisable to loop in gaming enthusiasts who could provide specific observations, which can then go a long way in improving the products.
2. Engage one customer at a time: Herd mentality works everywhere. Seek to learn from a single customer at a time. If you have too many of them, chances are they will influence each other, and, the dominant voice will carry the day.
3. Offer a small menu of choices: Presenting a single concept, well considered, defies the purpose of co-creation. Typically, you want to give customers two or three options and invite them to begin exploring the one they are drawn to. Maybe, they can move on to a second one, subject to availability of time. Simply learning that your favorite concept is not the one that customers choose first is even though a humbling experience, it functions as good learning. Be sure to include choices you think people will not select. The best firms test concepts they suspect are too extreme or too tame, just to locate their customers’ novelty threshold. Sometimes, customers will surprise you. The managers who oversaw the Google Gmail alpha test predicted that it would come across as too intrusive (a software algorithm reads your private e‑mail and serves you targeted ads?). But, they tested it anyway, and it became a roaring success.
4. Provide visual stimulus—but leave it rough: Do not show finished products or even semi-finished products to the customers, who are helping to co-create. If you make your prototype too polished, they may feel the right answer, “Looks great!” Leaving parts of the concept incomplete is a great way to elicit the customer’s creativity and competence. Even if you know how your firm will want to fill in the blank spaces, it can be illuminating to see what customers come up with.
5. Help customers communicate visually: Providing simple, visual ways for customers to express their choices helps them tap into their true preferences rather than telling you what they think you want to hear. Leaving empty speech bubbles over a character in a storyboard is another way to elicit their choices.
6. Leave time for discussion: In co-creation, it is the discussion which is more important than the actual choices made by the customers. Encourage open and heart to heart discussions. Therein lies the value of the exercise.
7. Provide timely feedback: Customers do not care if the visualization is poor, or if the idea is embryonic and half-baked, but they do want to know if you used their input to refine it. So, let them know what you did with their input. That is part of the co‑creation contract. Even if their ideas are not used, or perhaps scoffed at internally, they should be informed if the ideas were eventually used or not.
Despite its merits, co-creation as a process is not really well known in India and perhaps has not taken off even in the West. Just call it “getting the voice of the customer” when you describe it to your senior leadership team. Or else, do it under the veil of darkness. But, by all means, employ customer co-creation on every growth project as the key method to understand what will work in the market. And, in partnering with the Operations and Marketing teams to help product development, the L&D team can justly lay claim to being at the helm of affairs of pushing the organizational envelope by partnering in cutting edge learning.
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