Customers are Key to Innovation

May 29, 2018

By Carla Johnson

Lynn Bonge was a larger-than-life executive with a scant shock of salt-and-pepper hair who grew up in a small Nebraska town not far from where I did. Twenty years my senior, Lynn had an enviable reputation in the architecture industry for the wacky ideas he brought to the table and how, somehow, he got them to work out.

With an uncanny knack for getting people to say ‘yes,’ the firm’s management asked him to head marketing.

Lynn was a master innovator. He had an exquisite ability to understand his clients’ problems like no one else could. And he was a boss that taught me a tremendous amount about the process of innovation.

I read an article the other day by Emma Miller that outlined why any company wanting to be more innovative must start with their customers. These are things that Lynn naturally knew decades ago, but companies are still trying to get their arms around today.

1. Gather feedback from the front lines

Working for Lynn was the biggest eye-opener when it came to hearing from our clients directly. I remember him popping into my office to tell me to pack my bags. We were hitting the road to talk to clients face-to-face about a new idea on which we had been working. It was now time to put it to the test in front of the executives that would, hopefully, buy it.

Customer feedback made all the difference in our success.

First, it helped us refine our idea to truly fit the problem they faced. Successful innovation starts with solving a specific problem.

And second, which was critically important, it gave us ammunition when we began the internal journey to move something new forward. Armed with data and insights direct from the mouths of clients, the nay-sayers looked fear-filled and small thinking. Instead of the protectors of the castle, they were perceived as the resistance who blocked big opportunities for new and diverse revenue streams.

Nobody wants to be that person.

2. Look for similarities in individual insights

Spending time with our clients and walking through their facilities led them to share things that didn’t come to mind over the phone or even in a conference room. As we walked the hallways with these leaders in their industries, we began to hear patterns in what they said was their problem and how they articulated it.

Words matter. If you want to help your customers solve their problem, then you need to speak their language.

Being able to show the similarities in the feedback that customers gave also helped equip us for internal conversations about change.

3. Provide a strong incentive for concrete data

As we were able to bring evidence inside the walls of the firm, we were able to recruit believers to help us expand our opportunity to capture data. The new idea organically came up in conversations that design and engineering teams had with clients, and teams heard the same feedback we had shared. They saw that it wasn’t just marketing’s wild goose chase, it had validity.

The more we tested and vetted the idea, the more we found that clients and prospective clients were willing to share their data with us. We had hit a sore spot and they felt that our success would contribute to their success.

If you find a true pain point for a customer, believe me, they will want to help you fix it.

4. Ask the right questions

This point was a big learning for me at that time in my career. I remember sitting in the waiting room about to meet with the CEO of a healthcare system in the Pacific Northwest. Lynn turned to me and said, “You run this meeting.”


It’s one thing to witness a meeting. It’s another to lead it.

And Lynn knew that. Which is why he made me do this.

Not one normally short on words, I found myself grasping to tell the story of our idea and panicked about how to get ask for feedback. Lynn had been doing this for 20-plus years. I had been doing this for almost 20 seconds.

When we wrapped up the meeting, shook hands and went our separate ways, I finally exhaled. Lynn had let me stutter and stammer my way through the meeting and, to be honest, I was pissed.

But he taught me an invaluable lesson: Sometimes we have to ask bad questions before we get to the right questions. (He also told me that he and the client were great personal friends and there was no harm done to the business relationship by letting me debut during this meeting.)

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Too many people get hung up on making sure they have all of the questions ‘right’ before they talk to customers. And generally, they never end up talking to the customers.

5. Let your employees drive innovation

Lynn was a master at empowering employees to drive innovation.

He mentored me in how to usher new ideas into the organization – from coming up with new concepts to vetting and pitching them for approval. He wasn’t so full of himself that he thought he was the only one who had great ideas. He knew that the people closest to the work and our customers often saw things and from points of view that no one else could. And he was smart enough to know that big changes start with small steps. They just add up over time to turn into big things.

Read Emma’s full article.

Photo credit: Pixaby

About Carla

Carla Johnson Innovation Creativity Speaker Author

Carla Johnson helps leaders who are often paralyzed by traditional thinking. They suffer from slow growth, an eroding competitive advantage, low employee engagement, and depleted investor confidence. Their teams lack purpose and progress and constantly battle a resistance to change and new ideas.

As the world’s leading innovation architect, Carla’s spent 20 years helping leaders shatter limits and discover undiscovered possibilities. Through years of research, she’s developed a simple, scalable 5-step process that teaches people how to consistently produce inspired ideas that lead to uncommon outcomes.

Carla Johnson Innovation Creativity Speaker Author