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Small Business Success: Innovation helps your business keep up with customers' expectations

Updated on August 16, 2012

Americans, it seems, have become conditioned to expect new and better products all the time. Right now I have a smart phone that performs nearly as many functions as the first computer I owned and does far more than my previous phone. Yet my two-year contract is nearly up and I’m thinking about an upgrade.

Chances are, your customers expect the same from your business.

I have worked with small businesses (and by small I mean usually 15 or fewer employees) for more than 16 years, primarily helping with their advertising needs. Along the way I found there are a number of key ingredients that most successful small businesses have that those who fail don't have. One of those ingredients is innovation.

Sometimes doing the same thing the same way works for years. But often it doesn’t, and the businesses who resist change usually find themselves losing customers. The old adage is that if you’re not moving forward, you’re moving backward. There is no such thing as status quo in the business world.

Your customers expect you to think outside the box

Innovation is especially important for those who manufacture products. Like with cell phones, customers expect new and exciting products all the time. That means time spent in research and development. This can be a nerve-wracking experience for some business owners. The time spent in developing the new product is time that doesn’t earn money (in fact, it often costs money) and there’s no guarantee that the customers will want the newer product. The good news is that when you create a good product, it usually pays for the cost of development many times over.

One of the best ways to decide what products you need to develop is to listen to your customers. If they’re looking for a certain type of product, or suggest changes to an existing product, that’s a good place to start. You can also glean ideas from looking at other similar products (although stealing another person’s design is never a good idea). One client of mine is a furniture manufacturer. He discovered a few furniture catalogs from the early 1900s and used those products as the basis for creating his own unique designs.

A new product isn't always new

Often the “new” product simply is a new twist to an existing product. The newest iPhone, for example, isn’t greatly different from the very first one, but it has new bells and whistles that make it more useful (or at least more fun to play with). Again, your customers will be the best source for deciding what to add or change. If you receive a lot of requests to customize your product in a certain way, then that might be the change you make to create a “new” product.

Sometimes innovation results from a need you have yourself. One of my clients is a metal fabricating business. They discovered that the metal bending machines they purchased weren’t as precise or as heavy duty as they needed, so they built their own bending machine. Requests came in from similar businesses for a machine like theirs and now the bending machine has become a popular sideline to their other products.

Sometimes creating a “new” product is as simple as redesigning the packaging. I’m currently revising a catalog for a client to include their new products. But I discovered that many of new products are just the old ones with new labels or redesigned boxes. A bolder, brighter label or box will attract the attention of new customers, meaning your existing product will seem new to them.

New products can help sell your existing products

An interesting side benefit of innovation frequently is increased sales of existing products. My furniture manufacturing client exhibits annually at a large furniture expo that is attended by many of the same furniture buyers year after year. He always creates new products to pique their interest. Often sales from these new products are minimal, but customers drawn to his display booth by the innovative products linger to look at his existing product line and decide those better meet their needs.

Innovation is about more than just products

But innovation isn’t just for manufacturers. Retail stores also need to constantly think of new products to offer customers as well as innovative ways of displaying them. One retail client of mine constantly scours product catalogs and sales papers from vendors to find new products to provide for her customers. Sometimes it’s the same type of product but from a different vendor who offers a wider selection or better quality or a lower price.

Some retail stores also frequently change how and where their items are displayed. Moving a certain item to the front of the store where customers see it as they enter, or placing it near the checkout line, can result in an instant jump in sales of that product.

Even those who offer a service benefit from innovation. A friend of mine is a talented portrait photographer whose portfolio of unique settings and photos attracts many new clients. Yet she constantly strives to find different settings, creative ways to group families and new camera angles. That innovation not only makes her clients happy, it attracts new customers.

Innovation takes time and money, but it is a key ingredient to make a business successful, both today and for many years to come.

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