Ask for Their Innovations

Most of us are proud of our products and services and feel good about the consumers who purchase them. We could feel even better by asking our customers how they creatively use our products and services.We may not uncover "brilliant failures" such as Viagra or post-it notes, but we may discover innovations that add value to our products and services – and put more cash in our pocket.

In a recent blog post about innovation, the writer noted a motorist suggested an interesting variation for the common traffic stop light. The motorist's idea was to design a traffic light with a progress bar, showing how much time is left before a green light turns to yellow, a useful data point for someone assessing whether to power through a light or stop.

Starbucks asks its coffee-sippers for bright ideas on its My Starbucks Idea.

A colleague in the PR field noted his long-time clients in the construction and real estate industry were signing up for less media relations, but continuously asking for more introductions to people in the industry. The shift reflects the downsizing of traditional media outlets and the rising value of direct contact with potential customers and business partners. My colleague needs to adjust his business model accordingly.

Sometimes you don't need to go outside your own company to discover innovation. Tektronix engineers were renowned for coming up with the electronic instrument the engineer working on the next bench needed to do his job. As a result, Tektronix engineers developed tools such as portable devices to modify oscilloscopes on the spot. Arguably these devices were among the first personal computers.

Don't overlook your competitors for sources of inspiration. A couple of sharp-eyed Hewlett Packard employees saw their Tektronix competitors using their homemade computers at a trade show. They were dismayed at the technological lead Tektronix had in designing oscilloscopes, but recognized the portable devices used by Tektronix engineers as a whole new product, a whole new ballgame. Tektronix never sold personal computers. HP has sold millions.

Asking your customers for their ideas on how to use or improve your products or services is a great way to engage people loyal to your brand. New tools provide a great venue to collect customer feedback. One such tool is Get Satisfaction, which provides a simple way to build online communities that enable productive conversations between companies and their customers.

Many San Francisco startups have created a community manager position, a person who handles social media and customer service, then reports needed changes to developers. This person provides a link between parts of a company, which are often disconnected. While larger companies would not be able to have just one person handle all these pieces, building internal communications between communications, customer service and development can help transfer good ideas from customers to developers.

It only takes one gem of an idea to make the whole outreach effort worth it. Most important, your customers will think it's cool you took the time to ask. They will feel a greater sense of ownership in your success.