What Is Good for IBM Is Good for the Country: What Field Service
Can Teach R&D(1)
IBM now requires software researchers and product developers to work in tandem to ensure that product innovations are useful in the real world. IBM also requires that researchers who are developing new services accompany service people in the field. After all, service people are the first to know which offerings are successes and which are duds.(2) Here are some red flags:
Positioning/Targeting: Customers don't use your product the way you expected. iRobot represented its $199 Roomba, a mushroom shaped robotic vacuum cleaner, as an automated device for quick pick ups. However, many customers wanted to buy an all-purpose vacuum cleaner. As a result, iRobot designed the more powerful Roomba Pro ($229) and Roomba Pro Elite ($249). Pro Elite also offers a superfluous remote control device for those who expect the device to tumble down stairs. Instead of changing the product, you may wish to convince prospective customers to change their modus operandi. This requires training. Alternatively, you could target a different market segment. For instance, iRobot could target two career families who need a way to make the house presentable before guests arrive.
Unrealistic pricing: Flat panel TV screens are becoming available, but are so expensive that most consumers will put up with conventional sets that fit in with existing decor. In the short-term, flat panel companies could target product innovators who don't mind premium prices.
No perceived benefits/value: Some online information services were free initially, but now require a subscription. If users think the content is equivalent to what is available on the Worldwide Web at no cost, they won't subscribe to services, such as Hoover's Online. Some vendors win subscribers by providing a tease. They give subscribers a free subscription for a month, hoping that the user will become habituated to using the service.
Inviolable cultural issues: Housewives in some Middle Eastern countries would probably resist buying meats at supermarkets. In these countries housewives are used to purchasing meats at neighborhood butcher shops that observe halal, according to one of my MBA students.
Threats to job security: Workers resist innovations that simplify their jobs while simultaneously threatening to eliminate the jobs. Companies with innovative products that automate processes need to address workers' feelings of vulnerability, particularly if these same workers make purchase decisions.
If trips to the field reveal your product is not performing as expected, you may be able to salvage the new offering by modifying the product and/or your approach. Better yet, study your customers and their practices before developing new products. Winett Associates can help you identify your target market and find out about their needs, practices, and preferences.
(1) Cartoonist Al Capp's parody of Charles E. Wilson's famous words. Wilson headed up GM before serving as Secretary of Defense under President Eisenhower.
(2) Darryl K. Taft, "IBM's R&D Work as One," eWEEK, August 4, 2003.
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