Operations Management

Using Customer Input for Product Development

Written by Andrew Goldman for Gaebler Ventures

When developing new products, make sure you're obtaining customer feedback throughout the process. Remember, your customers are the ones who will buy the product, so their input is invaluable.

Depending on the size of your company, you may or may not have a product development person or department.

You may work on product development yourself with the help of others in your company. In either case, you should be using customer input to develop your products. Your customers are the ones who will be buying your product and they are the ones who know what they want in a product.

High-tech companies often argue that the customers are unaware of developing technology so they can't know what they want. This is a falsehood. You may be developing something the customer has never dreamed of, but the customer still knows what features they want and what they need.

No matter what product you're developing, getting input from the customers will lead to a greater chance of success for the new product.

There are many ways to go about getting customer input. You could have a marketing person calling on customers with survey questions. You could have a person conducting market study groups or hire an outside agency to capture company data. These options can be costly, but they are good ways of getting the information you desire.

A more cost effective method and a technique that all companies should utilize is documentation of customer feedback. When a customer calls or emails your company with positive or negative feedback, this information should be documented and stored in a database. Your customers have invaluable information and when they are calling into your company you should capture this information.

For example, if you produce smoothies, you may receive a lot of positive feedback about one product and negative feedback about another. Your customer service department should be trained to ask questions about what they like and what they don't like specifically. From this information, you may be able to develop a new product that has more of what the customers like and less of what they don't like.

Before launching the new product, you should definitely test the product out on your customers. This could be free samples or conducted in study groups. Gather as much information as you can from as many people as you can and don't be afraid to make changes.

Obviously, you should conduct these trials prior to purchasing labels and other packaging materials. If you find something needs a change, you don't want to be handcuffed because you've already purchased materials.

Many companies conduct in-house studies where they develop new products and receive input from employees. The idea is that your employees are your market study group. While employee feedback is important, it's biased and should not be used exclusively. Employees may be hesitant to provide negative feedback.

It's possible the person who developed the product is their boss or friend and they don't want to hurt their feelings. In addition, it's different with a customer who will spend money on the product as opposed to an employee.

New product development is the creation of something that your customers will purchase. As a result, you need to make sure your customers will want what you are producing. Your new product will have a much better chance of success if you obtain customer feedback throughout the product development cycle.

Andrew Goldman is an Isenberg School of Management MBA student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He has extensive experience working with small businesses on a consulting basis.

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