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Innovation: A collaborated effort: Listening to the voice of your employees and your customers

By Rikus Grobler                                                                                                                                                    

The why of innovation is brutally simple: change is accelerating. If things didn't change, the organisation could keep on doing what it's always done, and there would be no need for innovation.  If markets were stable, if customers were predictable, if competitors didn't come up with new products and services, and if technology stayed constant, we could all keep going as we did yesterday.

All the evidence shows that change is racing at us faster and faster, which means many new types of vulnerabilities.  Technology advances relentlessly, altering the rules of business in all the markets it affects, which is, of course, every market. Markets are not stable, customers are fickle, and competitors are aggressively targeting market share. Innovation is critical to success in every industry.

What is innovation in the context of organisations, and how do they implement it? There are many different definitions for innovation, but we will focus on the meaning of thought-leader Nick Scillicorn: "Turning an idea into a solution that adds value from a customer's perspective."

This definition highlights explicitly three essential elements of innovation. Firstly, every innovation begins with an idea. Secondly, the idea must be implemented (turned into a solution), and thirdly, it must create value for the customer.

We will focus on the first part, namely the generation of ideas. Where do good ideas come from? With "good" ideas, we mean ideas that can fulfil the requirement of "value for the customer" in the definition of innovation. The answer is quite straight-forward. The people who are in the best position to come up with good ideas on how to improve products and services are the people making and delivering the products and services, i.e., employees; and the people who use the products and services, i.e., customers.

The frontline employees who drive business processes and interact directly with customers have unparalleled insights into where problems exist and what improvements and new offerings would have the most impact. The customers' experience is the product of a journey, from searching the business' website to purchasing their offerings, interacting with employees, post-sales support, and every other touchpoint along the way, which places them in the best position to highlight where their experience was unsatisfactory. It makes logical sense.

However, according to research by Forbes, it seems that organisations are not good at listening to employee and customer inputs for innovation. By "listening," we do not refer to surveys and polls or customer satisfaction and employee engagement indexes or analysing social media feeds. These instruments and methods are certainly useful for their intended purposes but listening in the context of innovation is about really connecting with people.

It is a different experience for an employee to submit an idea on the organisation's internal social network platform and get a few thumbs up icons, as opposed to discussing a concept in-depth with an interested manager, asks questions to understand the idea better and advises on the next steps to take to make the idea a reality. It is the same for customers. You know a customer is unhappy with something if you get a one-star rating. Still, you will only get to the root of the customer's unhappiness by engaging in a proper conversation with the customer.

There is ample research pointing out why organisations (managers) do not listen to customers' or employees' ideas. The definite route leads us to the conclusion with a few pointers on how organisations can get better at listening to employees and customers to get more innovative ideas:

  1. Solicit feedback regularly. Please don't make it a once-off event to listen to employees and customers. You keep your finger on the pulse if you give them more opportunities to share their insights and suggestions, and you'll be far better equipped to understand and respond to make innovation happen.
  2. Ask the right questions. Don't ask general, often irrelevant questions that offer little opportunity to provide meaningful input. The best way to solicit feedback from employees and customers is to ask questions about relevant, actionable topics that are central to creating value for the customer.
  3. Communicate before and after. When organisations fail to keep employees and customers informed about what they're doing in response to feedback, they stop providing input. If people think their ideas go into a black hole, why bother to give them?
  4. Take action. Perhaps the worst thing you can do is ask employees or customers for input and then do nothing with it.

Every person has the potential to generate worthwhile ideas, and employees and customers inevitably have potentially useful ideas about possible improvements for the business. However, ideas must be implemented to exploit their value, and only when a useful idea is ultimately implemented, effecting change and realising benefits for the customer, is it regarded as an innovation. Therefore, for the organisation that wants to become more innovative, the challenge for management is to determine how to successfully and consistently translate the potentially useful ideas of employees and customers into innovative action and results.

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