As a B2B supplier, you can approach new product development one of two ways. You can ask your customers what they want. Or, you can find out what they need. Of course, the sure-fire way to success is to address their needs in ways they may have never thought possible. And there’s no better way to do that than by touring their facilities.
The name of the game is to find ways to help your customers that they wouldn’t think to tell you about. The reality is they’re often too close to see everything clearly. When you can tour the facility to get a look at not only their general operations but how they use your products specifically, you’ll gain a unique perspective. You’ll see it with fresh eyes, and as a result, you’ll discover where your company and its products can really add value.
When taking customer tours, vendors should be focused on helping their customer in two ways: 1) To gain context for the voice-of-the-customer interview, which ideally will take place right after the tour. With this information, the vendor will be able to ask much better probing questions to understand their customer’s needs once they’ve observed the customer’s process first-hand. And 2) To look for potential areas of improvement that will benefit the customer.
Keep in mind that you shouldn’t blurt out a recommendation as it comes to you. Let ‘Search now, solve later’ be your motto while on customer tours. Still, there’s a good chance your ‘fresh eyes’ will be able to spot work-arounds (temporary, sub-optimal fixes) and other areas you could help them improve later.
Of course, performing more effective B2B customer tours will require you to make some changes and acquire new skills. There is little guidance on the subject. Only two Harvard Business Review articles have ever addressed it. Ethnographic research is an interesting observation methodology, but is heavily weighted toward consumer behavior, not B2B. “Muda” and the seven wastes of lean processes, part of the waste reduction methodology made famous by Toyota, is a helpful framework, but even it falls short of what is possible.
For years we struggled with ways to help our clients improve their B2B customer tours. We’d seen too many tours where active thinking seemed to end once everyone had adjusted their hardhats. Then, three years ago, we developed a new tour methodology called AMUSE, which stands for Accelerate activity, Minimize input, Upgrade output, Simplify transition, and Eliminate activity.
Learn more about this customer tour boosting methodology and how to make it work:
Start by getting a preview.
All customer processes are made up of a series of activities. This is true of a factory process like paint-making, fieldwork like house-framing, or a service like computer help-desk support.
Ask your customer tour guide to help you draw a sketch of their operation before the tour. This helps you identify these activities, as well as a) their purpose, b) their sequence, and c) key inputs. Then apply AMUSE methodology to each activity in the process, striving for improved customer outcomes. And remember, during the tour, you might be only thinking about these outcomes. The time for asking questions will come later.
Break up the workload.
Hopefully, you’re not going into your customer tour alone so use everyone in your group. We teach a methodology in which your team would consist of a Moderator, Note-taker, and Observer. To make the tour more manageable, break the workload down. The Moderator might focus on ‘accelerate’ for each activity, the Note-taker on ‘minimize’ and ‘upgrade,’ and the Observer on ‘simplify’ and ‘eliminate.’
The easiest way to understand AMUSE is to see what it would look like in practice. Imagine you make nail guns and you’re observing their use on a house construction site. The activity you’re observing at the moment is overhead nailing. How might you apply AMUSE methodology to help the customer (later) with this activity?
Basic Questions: How could we make this activity go faster, thereby reducing labor costs and increasing capacity?
Real-World App: What if you lowered the weight of the gun? Would the framer be going faster by the end of a long day?
Basic Questions: How could we reduce the costs of material, capital, and energy applied to this activity?
Real-World App: Would a higher-powered gun let the worker use cheaper studs full of tough knot holes?
Basic Questions: How could we improve the output from this activity, e.g., reducing defects or improving ultimate customer benefits?
Real-World App: One way to upgrade output would be to lower defects—nails that don’t fully embed—perhaps by having the gun sense resistance and adjust for it?
Basic Questions: How could we streamline the transition between two activities, thus reducing inventory and lead times?
Real-World App: Maybe the framer’s next activity is to set the gun down on the floor. What if you designed a hanger on the gun? Could it cut down on a lot of unnecessary bending?
Basic Questions: How could we totally eliminate an activity—perhaps by combining two or more activities—to reduce overall costs?
Real-World App: Most studs have 14.5 inches between them. Was the framer’s preceding activity using a tape measure? If so, you might eliminate it by building a 14.5-inch guide into the nail gun.
Are these all great solutions? Probably not. But what if your customer interview teams were highly skilled in these observational methods? Would they ask better probing questions during interviews? Would they uncover new ways to help customers? Would this give your company a competitive advantage?
You can learn a great deal by watching workers perform tasks, observing posted production records, looking at the rework area, and asking relevant questions. Tours are truly the windows into what’s going on with your customers and how they’re using your products. When you can maximize the amount and quality of information you get from them, you can make better products that truly work for your customers — that’s great news for them and you!
[Image Credit: Crown Audio]
Dan Adams is all about B2B product development: His free e-book, 12 New Rules of B2B Product Launch, boosts launch success, and his 2008 hardcover book, “New Product Blueprinting: The Handbook for B2B Organic Growth“, clarifies the “fuzzy front end” of innovation. As president of Advanced Industrial Marketing, he conducts training workshops in every region of the world.