By Owen Eagan, The Saint Consulting Group
Communicating with customers is more than about providing exceptional service. According to Inge Thulin, VP of International Operations for 3M, “Innovation comes from interacting with customers” (Outlook magazine, February 6, 2010). That is, only through understanding and anticipating customer needs can you provide innovative solutions. In order to do that, you must provide your frontline employees with the necessary education and training to interact with customers.
In fact, business innovation expert Eric Mankin recommends that companies utilize both a top-down and bottom-up approach to innovation (“Strategy & Innovation,” November-December 2005). As an example of bottom-up innovation, he cites a case in which one of Best Buy’s employees increased in-store sales of a Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) product by developing new displays and training programs for co-workers. This is one of the reasons that Best Buy invests so heavily in the training of its frontline employees.
Mankin also cites 3M’s Post-it note as a famous example of bottom-up innovation. Initially, a 3M researcher developed an adhesive that wasn’t sticky enough for the company’s existing products. However, one employee found a use for the adhesive by marking pages in his church hymn book and the Post-it note was created. Though this product wasn’t developed through interacting with customers, it emphasizes the importance of encouraging innovation at all levels. Moreover, training your employees to listen to customers and recognize innovation opportunities is another way of enhancing your competitive advantage.
Owen Eagan is Vice President Eastern Division for Saint Consulting, an international management consulting firm specializing in land use politics. He is also an adjunct faculty member at Emerson College, the nation’s only four-year institution dedicated exclusively to communications and the performing arts. Email is firstname.lastname@example.org