|May 29, 2013|
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How to Get Much More Out of Your Customer Tours
By Dan Adams
As a supplier, you can approach new product development one of two ways. You can ask your customers what they want. Or, you can find out what they need. Of course, the sure-fire way to success is to address their needs in ways they may have never thought possible. And there's no better way to do that than by touring their facilities.
The name of the game is to find ways to help your customers that they wouldn't think to tell you about. The reality is they're often too close to see everything clearly. When you can tour the facility to get a look at not only their general operations but how they use your products specifically, you'll gain a unique perspective. You'll see it with fresh eyes, and as a result, you'll discover where your company and its products can really add value.
When taking customer tours, vendors should be focused on helping their customer in two ways: 1) To gain context for the voice-of-the-customer interview, which ideally will take place right after the tour. With this information, the vendor will be able to ask much better probing questions to understand their customer's needs once they've observed the customer's process first-hand. And 2) To look for potential areas of improvement that will benefit the customer.
Keep in mind that you shouldn't blurt out a recommendation as it comes to you. Let "Search now, solve later" be your motto while on customer tours. Still, there's a good chance your "fresh eyes" will be able to spot work-arounds (temporary, sub-optimal fixes) and other areas you could help them improve later.
Of course, performing more effective customer tours will require you to make some changes and acquire new skills, and there is little guidance on the subject. Only two Harvard Business Review articles have ever addressed it. Ethnographic research is an interesting observation methodology, but is heavily weighted toward consumer behavior, not business to business (B2B). "Muda" and the seven wastes of lean processes, part of the waste reduction methodology made famous by Toyota, is a helpful framework, but even it falls short of what is possible.
For years we struggled with ways to help our B2B clients improve their customer tours. We've seen too many tours where active thinking seemed to end once everyone had adjusted their hardhats. Then, three years ago, we developed a new tour methodology called AMUSE, which stands for Accelerate activity, Minimize input, Upgrade output, Simplify transition, and Eliminate activity."
Start by getting a preview. All customer processes are made up of a series of activities. This is true of a factory process like paint-making, fieldwork like house-framing, or a service like computer help-desk support. Ask your customer tour guide to help you draw a sketch of their operation before the tour. This helps you identify these activities, as well as a) their purpose, b) their sequence, and c) key inputs. Then apply AMUSE methodology to each activity in the process, striving for improved customer outcomes. And remember, during the tour, you might be only thinking about these outcomes. The time for asking questions will come later.
Break up the workload. Hopefully, you're not going into your customer tour alone so use everyone in your group. We teach a methodology in which your team would consist of a Moderator, Note-taker, and Observer. "To make the tour more manageable, break the workload down. The Moderator might focus on "accelerate" for each activity, the Note-taker on "minimize" and "upgrade," and the Observer on "simplify" and "eliminate."
Follow AMUSE. The easiest way to understand AMUSE is to see what it would look like in practice. Imagine you make nail guns and you're observing their use on a house construction site. The activity you're observing at the moment is overhead nailing. How might you apply AMUSE methodology to help the customer (later) with this activity?
Are these all great solutions? Probably not. But what if your customer interview teams were highly skilled in these observational methods? Would they ask better probing questions during interviews? Would they uncover new ways to help customers? Would this give your company a competitive advantage?
You can learn a great deal by watching workers perform tasks, observing posted production records, looking at the rework area, and asking relevant questions. Tours are truly the windows into what's going on with your customers and how they're using your products. When you can maximize the amount and quality of information you get from them, you can make better products that truly work for your customers--that's great news for them and you.
Dan Adams is president of Advanced Industrial Marketing. His free e-book, 12 New Rules of B2B Product Launch (free download at www.b2bproductlaunch.com/ebook), boosts launch success, and his 2008 hardcover book, New Product Blueprinting: The Handbook for B2B Organic Growth (www.newproductblueprinting.com), clarifies the "fuzzy front end" of innovation.