Remember when you had to purchase your music via cd’s, records, or cassettes at brick and mortar record stores? Prior to the iPod’s arrival, there was always a delay between the intent to purchase the songs we wanted and the time when we could actually enjoy them. The delay was either the travel time to and from a store to buy the album or the time waiting for an order placed online to arrive from the post office. There definitely wasn’t instant gratification in the process. The purchasing channels were rigid – requiring us to buy in increments of albums instead of choosing the exact songs we wanted. But there wasn’t an outcry from consumers. We learned to live with the shortcomings of the process. But then came revolutionary change. Apple uniquely understood the customer inconveniences better than anyone else and developed a digital music library (iTunes) and a physical device (the ipod) to eliminate the delay in the customer’s receipt of music and that allowed the consumer to purchase exactly the songs they wanted. Ipods were a huge improvement over the status quo and the customer responded enthusiastically. In effect, Apple reengineered the customer’s processes and by doing so redefined the music industry.
Innovators like Apple find and exploit game changing opportunities at a more rapid pace than their competition. The question is how to systematically identify those opportunities that move the market without relying on pure genius or an extraordinary leader – because Steve Jobs type geniuses are in short supply. My experience is that it is possible to institutionalize innovation into an organization and that the spark to create innovation lies in customer awareness. Customers know what they like, dislike, and choose to ignore about a product if you only listen to them. The best tactic I have found to gather this information with the requisite detail is to examine the customer’s experience from a process based perspective.
In the business world, processes have historically been the construct to frame efficiency and quality improvement efforts. When project teams get started, one of their initial activities is to map the underlying process. The mapping exercise provides them a ground level awareness of what is actually occurring on a daily basis. Why wouldn’t the same mapping activity be applicable to gaining a ground level perspective of the customer? In fact, it does! And at a level far superior to other customer analysis tactics practiced today.
What does it mean to map the customer’s processes? Customers engage in many activities throughout a product’s lifecycle. Before making the purchase, a customer may gather information on the product, investigate alternatives, configure the product for a particular setting, search for the best price, or negotiate payment terms. After a purchase, the product may need to be built, delivered, or installed. And then as the customer uses the product it may require further servicing including fueling, maintaining, or repairing the item. Finally, as the product reaches the end of its lifecycle, it may need to be replaced, disposed of properly, or perhaps refurbished. Every step is an place for a company to differentiate itself – a potential opportunity to build customer loyalty.
Fortunately, the approach for mapping customer processes is no different than what is executed in improvement projects in many companies today. It entails interviewing process participants, visualizing the subject process in action, and iterating the documented process maps repeatedly until there is widespread consensus the mapping accurately depicts the customer’s behavior. Like any other process, there may be variations and exceptions. And there will occasionally be areas where no one really knows what happens.
The beauty in mapping customer processes is the deep understanding gained about the customer’s wants and needs. Beyond financial measures and internal metrics, very few companies understand the intricacies of the customer experience throughout a product’s lifecycle. Possessing this knowledge yields a unique opportunity – the capability to examine every part of the customer’s experience and investigate opportunities to fix issues, improve the customer experience, or eliminate wasteful activities. After evaluating these opportunities to confirm their validity, the end result is a list of customer based opportunities – and this approach can be used repetitively to fuel an enterprise’s innovation engine.
In today’s increasingly competitive markets, companies stealing market share are offering better products and customer experiences. Innovating requires knowing what customers want and what they don’t. And the best way to quickly gain this awareness is to supplement traditional sources of customer information with the insights generated by mapping your customer’s processes.