Ask the customer if you are fixing his problem

I love the exchange and cooperation with innovation experts. Not only because I always experience them as enthusiastic, open and creative. But also because they have such a precise eye for solving problems.

The difficulty of focusing on problem solving

Such a focus on problem solving is often forgotten in support functions. Not because there are no bright minds. But because this focus is systemically undermined for various reasons. A few not too rare examples from practice:

  • Recipients instead of customer: There is the dilemma that the line is usually not really a „customer“, but a recipient (against will). Many support departments do not charge the costs (directly) and if they do, there is an obligation to purchase. This turns internal billing into self-employment and the customer relationship into compulsory marriage. This is a dilemma because profit centers naturally have to be closer to the „customer“, but at the same time often compete with the market under unequal conditions (Krapf 2017).
  • Management instead of line: The work of specialists is assessed by management committees in these support departments. This is a dilemma, because the „customer“ and its problems should be the focus of attention. Due to this constellation, however, specialists tend to feel more committed to the management. This results in solutions that the committee finds great, but which are useless for the customers.
  • Expertise instead of customer problems: Specialists are professionals. They have in-depth theoretical and practical experience. So who could know better than these experts? That is, of course, a rhetorical question. The dilemma: Even if the specialists design the perfect solutions, an implemented solution that solves problems is better than the perfect concept. For this, however, it is not the theory but the customer’s problem that must be the focus of attention.

How to focus more on problem solving

That’s why I love working with the people from innovation. In their case, systemic coercion goes in the other direction. Before anything is even thought, let alone done, there is the question:“Which problem do we solve?“
Actually, this question is so simple and yet it is so crucial. The answer to this is more difficult. What helps me:

-> Develop empathy for the „customer“

  • In the conversation, you will gain an understanding of what occupies the customer, which challenges have to be mastered, which problems he wants to solve, which blind spots he possesses, and so on.
  • In doing so, I try to mirror my assumptions with the customer or at least to make them explicit and declare them as provisional for me.
  • So if an order comes „from above“ to do X or Y, then interviews with the „real“ customers help me to find out to what extent a problem exists and has to be solved in this regard

-> Ask the customer

  • Henry Ford is credited with the quote:“If I had asked the customer what he wanted, he would have said:‘ faster horses'“. A beautiful but also dangerous quote. Beaufitul, because it shows that the customer does not always know the solution to his problem. Dangerous, because it should not suggest that we know the client’s situation better than she does.
  • So when I have a first impression of the customer, I try to design prototypes which we (the customer and I) then develop together and iteratively. The prototype helps both sides to sharpen the (latent) problem and to find suitable solutions.
  • Unfortunately, I have often experienced that the inclusion of the „customer“ was only for tactical reasons and therefore „alibi“, so that the solution could be legitimized later.

-> Use methods and tools according to your needs

  • My two points above are elementary parts of (agile) methods like scrum or design thinking. Not surprisingly, I like to use them.
  • These methods are not always suitable. Scrum in pure format is in business (as in IT) especially suitable for typical (temporary) project work with a dedicated project team. Design Thinking is primarily designed to solve complex problems and is less suitable for trivial or complicated tasks.
  • And yet these methods contain aspects that are almost universally useful to me. Among other things, the focus on solving problems. Or iterative, sequential work together with the customer.

Ask the customer if you really are fixing his problem

My wish for all those who have held out to the end: When you have another task, think of a group of enthusiastic critics. Such typical innovation types that exist in many companies. And then ask yourselves the critical and central question:“What kind of problem do I want to solve?“ And then ask the customer if you really do.


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