To Succeed At Product Innovation, Turn Your Customers Into Allies


Ron Ashkenas

April 22, 2016

This post was coauthored by Daniel Dworkin.

Despite how much has been written about corporate innovation, it still presents a big challenge. On one hand, senior executives encourage employees to develop new products and services. On the other, they don’t want to throw money at concepts with limited market potential. So how can internal innovators create confidence in the viability of their ideas as they’re still evolving? One way is to get customers to help you make your case. Here’s an example:

A technology firm that wanted to spur innovation offered internal teams seed funding to develop potentially transformative products. One of the recipients, a mid-level manager, used the funding to create a business case and product prototypes. She shared these with a small group of existing customers. Although her work generated a great deal of enthusiasm among them, when she requested additional resources to expand her effort, executives told her that if she didn’t have a plan for fast double-digit revenue growth, they wouldn’t increase their investment. Cost pressures were too high to make long-term, risky bets, no matter their potential payoff. And obviously, at such an early stage of development, she couldn’t show significant profitability that soon. So, any continued work on the idea would have to be done within the manager’s own limited budget—most of which was already accounted for.

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Given this type of feedback, most people would have wrung their hands and moved on. But this innovator was so confident in the strength of her product idea that she refused to let it go. Instead, she enlisted the help of her customers. Using what was left from her initial funding, she invited 50 existing and potential customers for a full day of on-site collaborative product development. She handpicked people to attend from big-name organizations that would be sure to pique the interest of her executive team. Once a dozen or so customers confirmed, she let word of the event trickle out internally. Soon, various executives within her company began asking whether they could drop by. In addition, they offered her a glitzy conference room and provided a videographer and photographer to capture the action.

On the day of the workshop, she began by laying out her product vision and how it could dramatically enhance the industry landscape. The rest of the day was devoted to facilitating small-group discussions about current solutions, additional functionality needs, and component priorities. Various executive sponsors dropped by and saw how excited customers were by the product’s potential. For the first time, an abstract idea became something much more tangible.

Following the event, the manager posted video clips to her company’s internal blog to highlight the success. Thousands of employees then became aware of her product concept. Perhaps more importantly, they saw images of smiling customers and heard their quotes of support.

The next week, the manager went back to the executive team to ask again for more money. This time, she got it – along with an invitation to brief them on her progress each month. The customers’ excitement had become contagious.

From our experience, this is not an isolated case. Internal innovators are often passionate about their ideas, but have trouble selling them to colleagues and bosses, especially in cash-constrained environments. Turning customers into allies can tip the scales and make the executive team, and the funding managers, pay attention. And of course, having customers on board early on, as partners in product development, helps increase the chances of achieving innovation goals anyway.

For managers seeking to engage their customers as innovation allies, here are a few steps to get started.

1. Define your targets. Consider the customers your company already does business with, and those it aspires to win over. Take note of the organizations that may be most interested in your idea and those that may have the greatest amount of credibility with executive decision makers at your firm. Focus on getting these people involved first.

2. Work your network. Collaborate with the account managers at your company to determine how to open up a dialogue with current customers. For new customers, solicit help from Sales and Marketing colleagues on how to make inroads.

3. Make your efforts visible. Give the people holding the purse strings at your company the opportunity to experience potential customers’ excitement about your idea. That doesn’t necessarily mean hosting events like the one described above; virtual experiences, testimonials, and video interviews can effectively relay customer sentiment too.

Innovators in established organizations need many allies to bring their ideas to life. Few are as powerful as customers when it comes to getting the sponsorship and resources necessary to be successful.

Daniel Dworkin is a partner of Schaffer Consulting.

Editor’s Note:  version of this blog was cross-posted on

This article was written by Ron Ashkenas from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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