How employees can take part in customer centric innovation research
Finding and engaging the right people for innovation research is sometimes tricky: we should know. The innovation cycle can be time-intensive, require constant iterations, and stretch over multiple stages. As a result, participants must be engaged, committed, and interested… all of which means that recruitment is of critical importance, but can rapidly be time-consuming and expensive for the client.
Start-ups and smaller firms commonly ask friends and family (i.e. employees and their wider network) to give informal feedback on their developing product. But while more established brands may rely on their employees for early testing, they tend to reject the approach for more formal research programmes. These organisations may just be missing a trick, because employees can be invaluable in helping develop and refine products and services.
First, let’s acknowledge the limitations of the approach:
- Employees often have pre-formed ideas of the company they work for, or may worry about being “too” honest. This can lead to biased responses – both positive and negative
- Employees may also have a vested interest in the outcome of the study due to their role or wider team - for example, someone who works in marketing may be unwilling to make complaints or comments about product positioning that will make more work for their team.
- And finally, some companies prefer to keep trial and error - especially error - away from their employees, for risk of damaging company morale with minimum viable products (MVPs) that are not launch ready.
But beyond some potentially significant cost savings on recruitment, there are also many benefits to enlisting a little help from your friends…
- Confidentiality: Employee research is a great way to keep a tight seal on projects when testing commercially sensitive ideas or products: this is one of the main reasons why two recent product trials carried out by Verve - one for a large telco company, and one for a large energy supplier - used employee participants. Echoing their employment contract, participants were aware on signing up to the trial that any leaks could be subject to repercussions. The size of the companies was also a benefit in this case, with hundreds of employees signing up for the trials.
- Engagement and change management: Many companies already appreciate that giving employees the first look at new products is a great way to boost engagement. But including employees in the development of such products can also be a great way to foster acceptance of change and lead to longer term loyalty – especially where new products are disruptive to the internal status quo. Employees are more likely than other participants to stay engaged in the long term, even without monetary incentives (another cost saving of this type of recruitment). And employees will often go the extra mile to help, as they have a vested interest in the success of your company, and may even feel that the end product of their company reflects personally on them.
- Informed feedback: Finally, inviting employees to participate in the research can help you to tap into a wealth of knowledge of the category and competing products. Knowledge tends to be distributed across a company – some people will know a lot about the end user, and others about marketing, industry trends or finance. Of course, employees ‘double up’ as consumers when they’re not at work, but they can also supplement their consumer mindset with expert knowledge.
Chances to bring diverse teams together to share knowledge are rare: employee research offers the perfect opportunity to benefit from the diversity of expertise the company has as a whole. Even if employees aren’t exactly the ‘target’ audience, they can be a great option for testing early stage products and identifying improvements before later stage testing with potential customers.
If you’re still on the fence about employee participation in research, here are a few guidelines to help you minimise risks and maximise success:
- Consider who your employees are and whether they are your target audience; if they are too different, employee research may not work: to what extent would digital natives be able to test an online service designed for people with low internet literacy?
- Don’t include employees too closely involved with the product, or ask the head of customer service to judge their team’s performance! If possible, recruit from a mixture of different business units – just as you’d recruit a range of demographics.
- Encourage employees to give honest, impartial feedback and if possible, ensure anonymity for more honest responses.
- Set clear expectations and keep in mind that you are recruiting research participants. Selected employees need to like the idea of taking part, be willing to spend time discussing their views, share their ideas, and meaningfully answer questions. If needed, provide guidelines about how participation fits into the day job.
Done the right way, employee innovation research has the potential not only to help organisations develop fantastic products and services, but also to boost employee engagement, make employees feel valued and turn participants into product advocates. More importantly, a research design can be both customer and employee centric, from the early stages of ideation to a systematic test and learn product development, there is a lot to be said about a dual, collaborative approach between the two audiences.