When Your Best Customers Really Aren’t

In this Harvard Business Review blog, MIT research fellow Michael Schrage points out that your best customers aren’t necessarily your biggest or most profitable. They’re the ones that are willing to do more than listen, and that actually push you to be more innovative. These relationships add value to your organization in the same way that you add value to theirs. In fact, Schrage says, “every company should have a plan and a process to convert its bigger customers into innovative partners.”

After an intense innovation workshop, the CTO of a globally-successful Chinese electronics supplier approached, unhappily.

“You emphasize the importance of collaborating with your customers to innovate,” he moaned, “but our best customers don’t want to collaborate. They just want us to build to their requirements as quickly and as cheaply as possible. They’re not interested in innovating with us.”

That common complaint hides a much bigger issue. “I’m sorry,” I replied, “but your company must first accept that these are not your best customers. They may be your biggest customers or your most profitable customers or your most demanding customers. But any customer that won’t collaborate or innovate with you can’t be your best. Those firms may even be your most dangerous customers because they treat you more like low-cost vendors than partners in design and development.”

“So how do we get them to see us as innovation partners?” he asked.

“Unfortunately, that’s the wrong question,” I replied. “Ask, instead, what makes you the best innovation partners they could possibly have in this product category?

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The Advantage Team

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