Editor's note: Kip Creel is president of StandPoint Group, a Tucker, Ga., research company. He can be reached at kcreel@standpointgroup.com. This article appeared in the April 7, 2014, edition of Quirk's e-newsletter.


When involving B2B end-users for new product development research, the quality of the participant far outweighs the quantity. In our mind, there are two dimensions to quality: 1) Does the participant have the right skill set for the assignment? 2) Are we using the participant at the right step in the concept development process?


Skill set


Let's first address skill set.


In concept development, focus groups are a common method to understand need-states and obtain concept feedback. Somewhere along the way, someone in our industry issued a commandment that stated "Thou must always recruit 10 to seat six-to-eight." That person obviously came from CPG and was never tasked with pulling together a group of welders who only worked with certain types of metals - or boat painters - or landscapers who used propane-powered mowers.  


The most productive B2B sessions often involve a small number of participants, sometimes four or fewer. In most major markets, recruiting six-to-10 customers that meet fairly obscure criteria is doable but it can be counterproductive to include them all. During new product research, good ideas and solutions are essential and some participants are better at this than others.


Because of this, we have learned how to find those shiny needles in the haystack. That is, those participants with the greatest potential for completing the task at hand. By using some innovative screening questions and cognitive profiling you can identify the best of the lot. Try not to worry too much about group size.


With a small number of participants, tactics are necessary to maximize participant contributions and engagement. The advance insight from detailed screening and cognitive profiling can guide the structure of your encounters. For example, if someone is not naturally a divergent thinker, then the session must be structured to foster that behavior.


The right step


The second aspect of quality is using the participant at the right step in the innovation process.


Creating breakthrough product and service ideas in the B2B domain poses some unique challenges. In many cases, the development of new ideas requires technical expertise that customers (or end users) lack.     


In B2B research, customers can easily articulate needs and pain points. If the project team hears this information firsthand, they can quickly transition to generating new ideas. In many circumstances, the project team is better equipped to generate the true breakthrough ideas.


Where customer involvement really matters is in the refinement of product concepts. In B2B research, second touchpoints with customers (after client ideation) is the best use of their feedback. Use them to strengthen first-round product concepts.


There are other reasons why this refinement step is important. First, it ensures product concepts are written in the customer's language. Far too often concepts are feature-oriented and fail to communicate the benefits. Second, concepts must be linked to a confirmed customer need. Decades of MIT research on failed products shows that organizations often overlook whether customers will recognize the intended value proposition. Postmortems on failed product launches reveal that customers didn't recognize a need or didn't recognize how the proposed solution would satisfy the need. This second round of customer feedback mitigates many of these problems.


Case study: Kimberly-Clark 


All of this learning came to light in a recent innovation assignment completed for Kimberly-Clark Professional, the company's B2B division.  


Through on-site observation, Kimberly-Clark discovered an opportunity to create new products in a manufacturing sector new to the organization. The imperative was to fill the pipeline rapidly with new-to-world or new-to-company products - and to do it quickly.


During this fast-track process, the project team was charged with uncovering customer needs, ideating solutions and delivering a specific number of Stage-Gate-ready product concepts. Given the short time frame for the assignment, careful consideration was given to how to engage the full client team and selecting the best customer participants and using their feedback for maximum effectiveness.


The client team was large and included representatives from R&D, marketing, product development and other subject-matter experts who could apply the company's existing technologies to this new market.


Cognitive profiling was essential for effective structuring of the ideation session. The project team consisted of a large number of naturally convergent thinkers - the opposite "brain type" needed. Convergent thinkers need more time to reach an ideation state and require carefully-selected exercises to generate new-to-world ideas. The other benefit of advance cognitive profiling is that by making team members self-aware of natural impulses, it fostered the right behavior for the task.


Similar care was given to the selection of the external team. For this assignment, 10 manufacturing employees were recruited based on experience with a specific work process.


Prior to final selections, we deployed a cognitive assessment and an inventory of questions to determine problem-solving abilities. The following are a few example questions.  


  • What maintenance and repairs have you done on your own car?
  • Give me an example of how you've modified something you use or wear at work to make it better?
  • If there was one thing you could change about a hammer, what would it be?

By comparing the responses across the 10 potentials, we selected the six highest contributors. These six first participated in a two-hour focus group to understand needs and pain points. The project team listened and captured need-states and headline ideas in real time.


On the very next morning, we shifted to ideation with the project team. No customers were invited. The goal was to generate a large number of ideas. The listening process from the previous day ensured the project team was fully immersed in customer needs. The ideation session was highly interactive and relied on innovation games and other creative processes. An illustrator was onsite to sketch ideas and make adjustments on the fly as baseline concepts emerged.


Two weeks later, four of the original six manufacturing employees and 15 members of the project team were invited to a refinement workshop. Small teams worked collaboratively to develop detailed product concepts. The real-time customer feedback ensured that proposed solutions were built around customer needs.


Powerful preparation  


The back-to-back sessions (focus groups to ideation) served as a powerful preparation exercise for the project team. Over a two-day (eight-hour) meeting, over 500 base ideas were generated. During the two weeks preceding the refinement workshop, a few members of the project team worked behind the scenes to synthesize the learning from the previous two phases and generated over 30 base concepts. After the refinement workshop, 10 detailed product concepts were ready for quantitative testing.


At the end of this six-week journey, three product concepts passed the Stage-Gate process with flying colors, largely because the project team could talk confidently about customer needs - and the concepts reflected the same. The organization also had additional concepts and hundreds of ideas banked.


According to our client, "Real-time end-user feedback ensured that proposed solutions were built around our customers' needs. Also, the concepts were written in their language, not ours. During our gate meeting, it took the conversation off of the financials because we had done our homework and knew what we were proposing was based on a solid understanding of the end user."


An ideation participant spoke to the effectiveness of the back-to-back process: "I was skeptical at first but my ability to hear customer feedback the evening before really helped me be a better contributor to the group brainstorming."


Give careful consideration 


We often hear that customers are not good at generating new ideas or don't know what they want. In B2B, we generally agree with this and studies have shown that client organizations have a better track record. Before you discount the importance of customer feedback, however, give careful consideration to selecting the right participants and using them strategically in your innovation process.