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Can Innovation Start With Imitation?

Business Innovation

Over and over and over again, I stress the importance of evaluation of your own company’s customer experience as a vital part of improving the customer experience. Without evaluation, there is very little to go on. It’s way too easy to stagnate, to only improve when the inspiration strikes (and not when the time is right) and to ignore what is happening in the real world.

As business leaders, we are all “shop keepers” who make it a habit of walking in the back door of the shop and ignoring what the view is from the front door. It’s difficult to evaluate from the customers’ perspective.

A “cheat” to this type of evaluation is to keep tabs on your competition. Some business leaders promote the idea of ignoring the competition completely, but I disagree. Paying attention to what your competition is doing can shed light on more than just your place in the market. Since we’re talking customer experience innovation this month, what do you think about starting with imitation? Innovation is often described as “building a better mousetrap.” If you don’t know what your customers are expecting in the rest of the marketplace, it makes it difficult to build anything better.

Can Innovation Start With Imitation? image Pay Attention To Your Competitors Choices 1

How’d They Do That?

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Competitors have a way of getting under our skin, especially if they are gaining publicity or attention we feel is unmerited. In 2006, the band OK Go released an amazing video for their song “Here It Goes Again.” The amazing part was the video was a low-quality production with a simple idea. The band, while performing the single, also performed a fun and synchronized dance on several treadmills. It’s fun choreography, and it definitely took some practice. There is something mesmerizing about watching it and the video took off virally. The band enjoyed some success thanks to this particular video, and yet the critics came out of the woodwork.

Other musicians, music critics and pretentious hipsters everywhere criticized the band for having a gimmick instead of a sound.

Music is always subjective, but the way OK Go leveraged the Internet and their own creativity is about as objective as it gets. THAT’s innovation. Competitors should have been seeing this as a wake-up call for what their customers want. Make it easy for me to enjoy your music on my terms, not yours.

Watch For What Is Missing

There are often unwritten rules within an industry that really don’t do anything to serve the customer. “That’s how it’s done” is a business-killing refrain. A friend of mine opened a salon and followed the usual industry schedule, which meant closing on Mondays. After a few months, he realized it would be a competitive advantage to not only open on Mondays, but to encourage walk-ins on that day, too. Business is booming while his competition keeps its doors closed.

Pay Attention To Why They Leave

Thanks to consumer review sites and social media, it’s easy to find why customers leave. Conduct a few searches on your competitors’ customers and you’re bound to find what ushered them out the door. Customers love to complain publicly about what pushed them over the edge. The real winners are the ones who take that information and turn it into the next great innovation for their customers.

Upstarts Are Your Next Competition

It’s always a little sad when a big industry leader – Kodak, Borders – doesn’t pay attention to the innovation from the smaller, hungrier competitors. These upstarts are the ones who should be demanding your attention. They are often innovating more, offering more and engaging more than the bigger brands.

What do you think? Do you pay attention to your competitors? Do you think you can see what’s next through your competitors’ customers’ eyes? Can true innovation come from imitation?

Photo credit: EastScene via Creative Commons license

This article was written for and a version was first posted on Sensei Blogs.

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