Three Groups to Tap for New Ideas

Check out these external sources of ideas to keep your business on its toes and in the money.
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My last column focused on ways to stimulate your employees to develop new product and service ideas to improve the company's competitive position. There are other sources of ideas that are as good as, if not better than, employees. Here are three groups to tap for new ideas:

Client Advisory Board. A client advisory board lets clients learn about your company and provide useful information. Advisors, because they are not paid employees, aren't afraid to express their opinions.

Suppliers. Suppliers are stakeholders in the business. They have a vested interest in their clients' long-term success. I often ask suppliers for their observations and suggestions about products and services they think my client should offer. One of my clients conducted a survey of its suppliers. One of those suppliers then contacted the president asking whether, should their recommendation for a new service be accepted, my client would pay a percentage of the new service's earnings for developing the idea. My client agreed, and within six months a new source of revenue was developed.

Mentors. Having a mentor to bounce ideas off can be very productive. Mentors not only provide guidance and an ear to listen about problems, but once they get to know a business, they come up with ideas. One of my clients sold prepaid parking cards in major cities, and his mentor suggested selling transportation cards that can be used for taxis and subways, instead. That idea created two new lines of revenue.

Another good, quick way to obtain some substantive information is to conduct a survey. Many forward-thinking companies conduct online surveys using

Survey Monkey and

Constant Contact.

A good survey lets users respond anonymously so they can answer honestly and without fear of offending anyone. Try to cull the number of questions down to five. Here is an example of the types of questions that work and why:

What is your biggest day-to-day concern? I ask this question because learning about my clients' biggest concerns can yield novel ideas. When I was running the Eastern Technology Council, our members were complaining that regional banks didn't understand the financial needs of technology companies.

Pre-1990, no one in Philadelphia had loan officers who focused on technology companies. We encouraged the banks to develop a technology practice, but they were reluctant until we announced that we were planning to start our own bank focused on servicing technology companies. We ended up partnering with a local bank, and within five years the bank had $60 million in assets.

What product should we offer that we currently are not offering?Clients wonder why a company that has a certain expertise doesn't offer specific products or solutions when the company has the knowledge and capability to do so. One of my clients provided language training and interpreting. A client asked the company why it didn't provide Web development services that focused on providing content in multiple languages. My client tested the concept, and now a third of its business is in developing simple multilanguage Web sites.

What service should we offer that we currently are not offering? Many companies think they've considered every possible service, but they often overlook opportunities. One of my consulting clients was a global outplacement firm with relationships with the human resources departments of the world's largest companies. When interviewed, clients asked why the firm didn't proactively market the executives and charge a fee like an executive recruiting firm would do. My client ignored the idea and missed a chance to develop a Monster.com service.

What could we do to improve our business? This is a great question to ask because clients have a totally different way of looking at a problem. Clients see ways to shorten processes and improve products.

One of the keys to building an enduring company is to listen to everyone who touches your products and services directly or indirectly and simply ask them for input.

Marc Kramer, a serial entrepreneur, has written five books and is an instructor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton's Global Consulting Practicum, where he serves as Country Manager for Chile.