How to Turn Customers Into Product Developers

Oct. 9, 2012
Customers care when they share. By including consumers, manufacturers are investing in their products a type of “sweat equity” with great economic return.

The most distinguishing factor between a product and a service is the participation of the customer. Manufacturers typically do not even consider the end user as a customer.

Their customer is the wholesaler, distributor, or supplier; the end-user is labeled a consumer. Imagine a consumer showing up at the factory to help produce the product they will ultimately purchase. But, that is the way service happens every day -- customer and service provider co-create the experience that surrounds an outcome.

But, what if consumers were a part of the product-making process? 

The obvious answer is disintermediation -- turning every manufacturer into the Dell of its industry. But, disintermediation carries its own set of problems. 

How can the consumer of a product became a customer of that product without upsetting the important distribution chain between object maker and object user? Most manufacturers provide the chain with product information and marketing support. But smart manufacturers are using three additional ways to bring their work closer to their end user.

Find ways to let consumers peek inside of your manufacturing process.

The observation approach has been around a long time.  Most people have enjoyed a plant tour of some sort. But, BMW (IW 1000/36) took the tour concept and their consumers to new heights with the Mini Cooper. New owners not only got adoption papers when they plunked down a deposit to buy a new Mini at the dealership, it came with a website link that enabled a new Mini owner to go online and watch their specific Mini being “born” on the factory assembly line.

T-shirt manufacturer and distributor invites its website community to vote on the coolest t-shirts designed by fellow amateurs. The winning entries become their product offerings, providing great exposure for budding designers and a sense of ownership by the t-shirt community. Their lively, engaging website enables t-shirt lovers to get an insider’s look at the challenging world of fashion design and manufacturing. 

Create a unique bridge to consumers that pleases distributors.

Harley-Davidson Inc. (IW 500/192) started the Harley-Owners Group (HOG) so Harley employees, dealers and consumers could together enjoy outings and rides on their Harleys. Jack Daniels whiskey is another powerful example. They created the Tennessee Squires Association, a fan club that requires new members to be nominated by old members.  The company’s folksy style has built brand affinity without upsetting important relationships with wholesalers, distributors, and store owners.  Squires receive a “deed” to a plot of land near the distillery in Lynchburg, Tenn., and are periodically sent “letters” from “neighbors.”

 “Neighbors” letters are as varied as seeking permission to look for a lost cat suspected to be hiding “on your plot” to letting you know that horseweeds were growing on your land. Small mementos like calendars, coasters and a postcard photo “of your plot” (taken from a few miles up!) all help hardwire brand loyalty. Their most successful touch is an occasional request for Squire assistance:  “What are your ideas on what we might do with our used barrels.”

Involve consumers directly in product design.

When baby products manufacturer Jason Tebeau was asked: “How do you feed a baby while in a car seat or stroller?” his inventive brain went to work thinking through the mind of the user. Assembling a group of fifty babies with parent in tow, Tebeau observed babies interacting with bottles in various stages of the design process as he solved product challenges -- how to work with the physics of liquid moving up a tube, how to capitalize on babies tendencies to put everything in their mouth and treat every object as a toy, or how to design an accordion-flex tube that babies could not remove. 

The end result was the popular Pacifeeder, one of several products from Tebeau’s company Savi Baby. Sold at such retail outlets as Target and, the bottle has been so popular many older babies prefer it over the traditional “lay in mommy’s lap” variety. The consumer -- babies and their parents -- were intimately involved throughout. Tebeau even used parents to help determine the appropriate price for his creative product, knowing retailers could see it as “just another baby bottle.”

Customers care when they share. By including consumers, manufacturers are investing in their products a type of “sweat equity” with great economic return. When consumers feel like partners, it elevates their loyalty. Xerox Corp. (IW 500/55) found their highly loyal consumers had a repurchase rate six times that of consumers who rated their products as simply “satisfactory.” 

Whether tangible product or intangible service, imbedding consumers into the DNA helps insure relevance and marketplace acceptance. Want a product that is a head-turner to your consumers?  Don’t treat them as a passenger on your road to success.

Let them help you drive.

Chip R. Bell is a customer loyalty consultant and the author of several best-selling books.  His most recent book (with John R. Patterson) is "Wired and Dangerous."  He can be reached at

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