Early Customer Feedback Crucial to Lean Philosophy

Of course, not everyone is Steve Jobs and the notion of the clueless customer is far from a universal truth; while buyers may lack vision, their contribution is hardly irrelevant. It’s not just the fact customers ‘vote with their feet’ but human beings are creative and non-linear. Qualitative data in the form of offhand comments or seemingly-insignificant behaviour may appear trivial to outsiders while at the same time unlock innovation to those inside an industry. This insight is critical for product and service improvement where even a small change may deliver disproportionate benefits.

In industry jargon this is known as continuous improvement and is hardly a new idea. Its form and function has evolved over decades, embodied by trends with names like Six Sigma, Kaizen and Lean.

Author Eric Ries captured this spirit with his 2011 runaway bestseller, Lean Startup, which argued that startups can shorter their route to market through rapid prototyping, iterative design and validated learning.

Spreadsheet Obscurantism

In the global marketplace, spreadsheets are the lingua franca of data-driven decision making. Figures in black-and-white inspire confidence but also risk burying the true customer insight under an avalanche of facts and figures. Data is inherently incurious; statistics don’t ask ‘Why?’ This spreadsheet obscurantism is anathema to entrepreneurship.

It is a blind spot which poses a problem not just for startups; businesses of all shapes and sizes are at risk of losing out on valuable customer data which cannot be captured in rows and columns.

Customer Voice

Intuitively our focus is on sales performance when any new product enters the market. More sophisticated organisations have customer focus groups. But entrepreneurs like Ries argue that the customer feedback mechanism must be baked in much earlier in the process. “Startup success,” Ries writes in Lean Startup, “can be engineered by following the process, which means it can be learned, which means it can be taught.”

The challenge is providing customers a way to share this feedback in a constructive and efficient way. Thanks in part to a growing number of web tools, there are many good options for soliciting customer feedback in the production process, including:

  • Private Beta. Probably the most direct way of getting high-value feedback is committing to a private beta for a select customer or group of customers who may be willing to put up with an evolving product in exchange for a small price break.
  • Crowdsourced Funding/ Feedback. Services like Kickstarter help to engage the marketplace by giving the public the ability to ‘kick the tyres’ of your idea.
  • Get Satisfaction. Get Satisfaction creates a focused environment for companies and customers to ask questions, share ideas, report problems, and give praise.
  • SparkBin. If you’re interested in feedback to generate ideas, you should be aware of SparkBin, it is a social app for users to suggest and discuss company ideas.

With so many options, the best choice for young companies or startups may be a combination. However, the risks of excluding your customers from the development process is that the feedback, when it eventually does arrive, may be too little, too late.

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