Give Customers Important Roles to Play in Shaping Your Business

Natural Behaviors You Can Tap to Unleash Customer Innovation

July 6, 2006

Our research in customer innovation revealed that there are five distinct roles that passionate customers naturally adopt with respect to an organization whose products and services they care about. They play the roles of lead customers, consultants, contributors, guides and promoters. Many customers fall into two or more of these roles. You can harness customers’ natural behaviors to drive innovations in business models, in new product and service development, in contributing their own intellectual property, in solving customers’ problems, in marketing approaches, in creating the knowledge that surrounds your products and services, and in promoting and distributing your products.

Our recommendation, based on the best practices we’ve observed, is that you recruit and nurture explicit customer communities for each of these roles. Marry each of these customer communities with the appropriate executives and employees in your organization so that these customer groups will become your partners in innovation.


The easiest way to harness customer innovation is to give your customers specific roles to play in co-designing your business. That way, passionate customers will intersect with people in many different parts of your business. You can measure how well you’re doing in harnessing customer innovation by counting the number of roles customers are playing in helping to co-design your business. You can gauge your progress in cultural transformation by noticing how many of your employees and how many departments are engaging with customers in these various roles.

You’ll find that customers and users play many roles in and around your business. They don’t play these roles to please you. They do because it comes naturally to them. They’re not focused on what they can do for your organization. They’re focused on what they can do for themselves. Your goal should be to empower your most thoughtful customers to play as many of these roles as you can and as are appropriate for them.

Natural Innovative Behaviors

We’re all natural experimenters. Experimentation isn’t a mysterious science. It’s a natural human activity. From the time we’re born, we’re experimenting with the world around us. We’re building imaginary towns. We’re making up characters. We’re creating games. We’re improvising tunes and moves. As we mature, we become more set in our ways. We also become more focused. We learn how to create purposefully in a repeatable, productive way.

People are naturally creative and innovative in different aspects of their lives. We tend to create results and develop new ways of doing things in the areas of our lives that we care about the most. For some of us, these innovations revolve around our personal lives; others of us become most innovative at work.

If you want to tap into customer innovation, you first need to learn to spot customers’ innovative behaviors and the roles they play in your innovation processes.

People Create and Invent. People are naturally creative. We write, we draw, we perform. We dream dreams and realize those dreams. We visualize new possibilities and bring them into being. We invent new solutions to intractable problems.

Artists, musicians, playwrights and film makers create something from nothing all the time. They use a generative approach--one that’s wired into all human beings[1].

1. They start with their current reality: whether it’s a blank canvas or a partially-written musical composition.

2. They visualize the desired outcome they want to create. The visualization may not be a picture per se, but it will include feelings, results, and characteristics of their desired outcome.

3. Then they maintain the structural tension between those two opposites--their current reality and their vision--to generate results that match or exceed the outcome they visualized.

This same approach works well for true invention. Inventors are usually trying to solve an intractable problem or to create a new capability that hasn’t existed before. John McCormick knew how corn was harvested. It was back-breaking work, requiring a lot of people. He set out to design an automated corn reaper, and after lots of trial and error, he succeeded. The McCormick reaper changed the practice of agriculture, dramatically reducing the number of farmhands required to harvest corn.

People Improvise and Customize. Have you ever combined interesting ingredients to make a new kind of sandwich? Have you created your own playlist of favorite tunes? Have you created a new “look” by combining clothes that weren’t intended to go together? Have you jury-rigged a solution?

It’s a natural instinct to take something, play around with it, and make it something of your own. You don’t have instructions for how to change it. You make it up as you go along. Or you come up with a vision in your mind and you make it happen.

Think about jazz. A group of musicians will start with a well-known song and they play with it, making something new and meaningful to them. What started out as a simple melody often ends up as an entirely new and exciting piece of work.

People Advise and Guide. Most of us feel really good when we can explain something or help someone understand a confusing concept or even just guide someone to the nearest grocery store. Once you become good at something, it’s a natural human tendency to want to share your knowledge with others.

If a friend is about to take a trip to a place you’ve visited, you’re happy to offer tips and suggestions--what to see and do, what to avoid, great restaurants you discovered, a knowledgeable guide, a great park, a wonderful museum the kids will enjoy. Or perhaps you’re a wine aficionado--you know what years were good ones for certain growing regions and grapes.

People Collaborate. People enjoy collaborating to create something together where the whole is truly greater than the sum of the parts. Examples of collaboration from our daily lives might include staging and performing a play or a concert or designing and executing a community festival. Such activities involve preparation, practice, and cooperation. They bring out the best in each of the participants. Ideally, the quality of the results exceeds what any individual contributor might have thought possible. Remember that a choir of one cannot harmonize.

People Solve Problems. People are natural problem solvers. Give us a problem and we try to fix it. In fact, we usually enjoy fixing it. It feels good to wrestle something to the ground.

For many of us, the best problems are the ones we know how to solve because we’ve encountered them before. I’m not happy when I realize that I don’t have the ingredients I need to make a dish I was planning to serve for guests, but I’m glad I know what to do about it. I know what I can substitute.

For others, the best problems are the ones they haven’t encountered before. Those present a new challenge. My husband loves to tackle mysterious new problems--when the boat engine is acting up in a completely different way than before, he’s intrigued. He particularly enjoys problem-solving when there’s another guy around who can lend a hand and suggest alternatives. There’s often a camaraderie inherent in problem-solving.

People Champion Their Favorites. People like to share their “favorites” with their friends and colleagues. Think about the last time you had dinner with friends. I’ll bet someone talked about a new book, movie, product, game, or Web site they discovered and enjoyed. They may have come to dinner wearing a new outfit or sporting a new tie or watch. They may have shown off their new handheld gizmo or raved about the new GPS system or satellite radio in their car. Introducing others to things you have discovered and enjoy is human nature. And what a kick when you get someone hooked on your favorite restaurant or TV show.

Having Fun! Being Proud! Feeling Smart! The reason these are natural human behaviors is because they all feel good. Creating something new or modifying something so that it fits your personality makes you feel creative. People like to show off what they can do and how imaginative or ingenious they can be.

We also like looking smart. Finding the last word for a difficult crossword puzzle or figuring out that the reason that it’s the alternator, and not the battery, that’s keeping the car from starting makes us feel like we know what we’re doing. We take pride in our ability to figure out what’s wrong and fix it.

In the same vein, people like to be first--the first to discover that new alternative rock group or what a great deal you can find on used electronics at the thrift store on the corner. There’s pride in looking smart to others as you introduce them to something that you can enjoy together. There’s a kick in doing things together, sharing ideas, fun, and a sense of accomplishment.

People contribute because it feels good. It just makes sense, then, to allow your customers to feel good by helping your organization innovate!


One of the patterns we spotted across the innovative organizations we’ve studied is that the firms that are doing the best job in harnessing customer-led innovation have engaged with different groups of customers in five distinct roles...


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