By Paul A. Riecks
QUESTION: I have never thought of myself as innovative, but I started a retail business about 10 years ago and we have survived and even had some really good years. I guess I have adapted to the curve balls that life and business have thrown at me, but I am worried that I’m out of ideas in a world of online shopping and changing tastes.
RESPONSE: Innovation isn’t just for tech geniuses and artists. One of the most important lessons every business leader learns is that the price of success is the ability and willingness to adapt — and that adaptability can be an innovation in and of itself. Regardless of size, success, industry or geographic location, that kind of innovation is an option for every business. It’s a differentiator — a factor that separates your company from your competitors in ways that generate success — and it’s possible in everything your business does.
Delivery: Can you make your customer’s life easier through better delivery methods — different store hours, better online selection or in-store pickup? Years ago, Dr. Leonard L. Berry, a marketing professor now teaching at Texas A&M University, predicted that the 21st century would see the rise of companies who could solve people’s “poverty of time.” What he meant was that people are drawn to anything that enables them to spend less time doing what they want or need to do. Think of all the things you use on a daily basis that didn’t exist 15 years ago — your smartphone, GPS, USB flash drive, digital camera — you use them because they save you time. How can you save time for your customers?
Products and services: Are you asking your customers what they think of your products and services? Its nice to hear how much they like them, but it is critical to find out what they think would make them better. The perseverance alone to regularly obtain this information could set you apart from your competitors. Now imagine what you could do if you applied what you learned to develop a new product or find a new use for an existing product.
Cost structures and pricing: What can you do to make your products or services more profitable? Can you adjust your pricing model or modify your cost structure to spend your money more effectively? You might even be able to “split the difference” of better profitability with your customers; you can increase efficiency in your processes to lower costs and hold the line on prices but still achieve better profitability. Those improvements can come from redesigning the work or investing in a technology that generates increased efficiency.
Research information on the web. There is a wealth of information on the web about innovation. For example, the University of Queensland in Australia has an informative business portal that talks at length about how to become an innovative business and why business innovation is so important.
Stay within your competencies. When you innovate, either stay within your company’s competencies, hire someone with the desired competencies or merge with another company that has the competency to build and deliver the innovations you’d like to see. A lot of ideas look great on paper but turn out to be over the heads of people designated to implement them. Of course, there are situations in which no one anywhere has ever done anything like the innovation you are proposing. In that case, you have to find people with experience in creating competencies that had not existed before.
Listen to your customers. Customers can directly suggest new products and services or new uses for old products and services. But you have to keep asking for suggestions. In some cases, you’ll need to take your customers’ suggestions one step further to develop the next great innovation. For example, when explosive growth in American suburbs meant more people were driving than taking public transportation, car makers listened to customers who wanted their cars to be easier to drive. No one was asking for specific devices — power brakes or power steering — but those innovations helped the penetration of car ownership into American life.