How unusual customer requests can trigger product innovation

Recall the diner scene in the movie Five Easy Pieces in which an improvising Bobby Dupea (played by Jack Nicholson) tried to obtain a side order of toast by asking for a chicken salad sandwich with “no mayonnaise, no butter, no lettuce… and hold the chicken!”

Told by a surly waitress that his omelet selection only came with an English muffin or coffee roll, Dupea responded, “I know what it comes with, but it’s not what I want”— before suggesting his remedy.

This infamous scene brilliantly depicts the sad reality that still characterizes many businesses: Presenting one standard set of offerings to all customers, as if every customer has the exact same preferences. Such thinking fails to recognize a critical fact: that all new future revenue sources come from seeing the inherent value of any unique customer request that cannot be immediately fulfilled.

Let’s step back and put this claim in context. First, think of how a “mass production” company treats a mistake: It looks for whoever or whatever deviated from the norm and demands future conformance — or else!

Consider, alternatively, how a company embracing “total quality” principles handles errors: It treats each as an opportunity to identify process improvements. The deviation from the norm prompts a rethinking of the norm. The poor performance triggers process innovation.

Now recognize a corollary point: Any customer request that cannot be honored can trigger product innovation. Those who might be considered “deviant” customers can actually prompt exploration of new ways of designing and delivering one’s offerings. Think of it this way: Every customer request for something other than what you’ve been offering can be treated as a live research and development experiment in value creation. Doing this is exactly how Joel Spira, founder of Lutron Electronics Co., managed to ward off the behemoth General Electric from encroaching on his lighting controls business. Lutron (most multi-setting dimmers you’ll encounter are Lutron’s) thrives today because Spira embraced this customization mindset. He instructed staff to “just say yes” to every customer requesting something outside Lutron’s existing line. He believed the temporary chaos created in finding ways to fulfill these requests was more than offset by the insights gained in doing so.

Instead of doing theoretical research in a remote laboratory, real-live customer interactions led to the capability to continuously innovate. Today, Lutron’s portfolio of lighting systems is unparalleled in the marketplace.

In pursuing this approach, keep three things in mind.

  1. Your current offerings are not the same as your underlying capabilities. They’re only the manifestation of how you’ve elected to use those capabilities to date.
  2. Not all requests merit the same effort to fulfill. But always consider how ad hoc solutions might be jury-rigged and execute those which can be done within a reasonable cost and timeframe … as alpha tests!
  3. Task frontline workers with logging every unique customer request. And be open to solutions customers themselves might offer — like how to make toast from a chicken salad sandwich. ●

James H. Gilmore is an Associate Professor at Case Western Reserve University Weatherhead School of Management

James H. Gilmore

Associate Professor
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