Listening to customers…. really listening.

One of the consistent messages from innovation surveys is that customers are a major source of innovation. Sometimes customers with more extreme uses for products will adapt products to suit their purpose and then the manufacturers find out what is happening and take these adaptations on board. If you’ve seen the videos of big wave surfing, many of the board modifications were made by the surfers and then adopted by the makers.

On other occasions, a customer might give an idea back to the producer but often they won’t give the feedback unless it is asked for. Getting to know your customer better is a good way to improve your innovation performance.

One of the featured companies in the Brisbane Innovation Scorecard was Aluminum Boats Ltd. This company is in a tough industry where costs are rising and the strong Australian dollar makes competitiveness a real challenge in export markets. Nonetheless they have managed to grow the business and continue to win contracts. For this company, the customer is central to the innovation process and the strategy of the company. To get the type of innovation they need, the company forms long-standing relationships with key partners. As stated by the managing director of the company, Roy Whitewood,

We set out to be different from the beginning. Most boat builders in our class tend to work on one-off projects.

Four years ago we chose a different direction for Aluminum Boats. We selected big clients and work with them to solve problems. We innovate openly with our clients in design and process. In this way we also manage all aspects of our boat building with the highest quality materials and latest construction techniques.

On receiving the award for product innovation at the launch of the Brisbane Innovation Scorecard, Stuart Pascoe, Aluminium’s GM, talked about the commuter ferries that were the focus of the prize. He talked about not only listening to the customer, but also the customer’s customer. So not only did they work with the ferry operator to design the right boat for the job but they also talked to the commuters who used the ferry. When they asked commuters about what is was like to live on an island in the bay and commute to Brisbane, it seems that many didn’t like the slow travel times. One of the reasons for the slow commute was the problem of hitting dugongs. These are protected animals. The result was a dugong-friendly fast ferry and as Stuart puts it in an interview, a hit might give the dugong a headache but it won’t kill it.

After the launch of the scorecard, I took a taxi back to the university to catch up on work. I was set to make a few phone calls on the way when I realized that the taxi driver was a very talkative fellow, so I put the phone away. One thing about Australian taxi drivers is that they are very likely to ask you everything about your life, without any sense of this being inappropriate. This driver wanted to know what I had been doing in the city, so I told him about the launch of the Innovation Scorecard and the companies that had been recognized for their leadership in innovation. When I mentioned Aluminium Boats he turned to me and said that he knew the company well and thought they were an excellent business.

It turned out that my driver was a volunteer coast guard and was a part-timer skipper of one of their boats. He said that they had a few boats but the one designed by Aluminium was by far the best. When I asked him why, he said that the company had spent a lot of time talking to everyone who worked on these boats. They really wanted to know what it was like to be searching for people in the water at night and what it was like to spend a long time on the boats during an emergency. My driver had told them about vision problems in low light conditions and the need to have a special set up in the cockpit with night-vision. This need was incorporated into the final design. Tim writes about empathy-driven innovation and Aluminium Boats is a very good example of what he is talking about.

The thing is that Aluminium is organized for ‘listening’ and its not just something that is part of their marketing. Having 90% permanent staff in an industry where subcontracting is common, fewer customers where long-term relationships can be formed and sticking with design and construct jobs are all strategic choices that help them to listen better.

As Stuart Pascoe, GM says

We don’t bash the problem over the head with a hammer. We go out, meet the agencies and find a way around it.

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8 thoughts on “Listening to customers…. really listening.

  1. I was really impressed with the Aluminum Boats story & with Stuart Pascoe at the BIS launch. Sounds like a fascinating firm!

  2. Stuart will be at your innovation course at the end of the month. Should be very interesting to get his views on design and using customer insights.

  3. That was a good bit about the taxi driver, they ask you a lot of questions in Miami as well.

    It makes so much sense to look internally for guidance; to look to the people who make your company work. Leaders are listeners first and foremost.

    Great post.

  4. Thanks Sylvester. I think you are right about the connection between leading and listening.

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