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Harvard Business Review

Think and Act Like Your Customers

Posted on Harvard Business Review: June 21, 2010 12:14 PM

My colleague Alex Slawsby made an observation while we sat in the office of one of our clients the other day. "Look around," he said. "The room is full of products made by the company."

Doesn't seem so fascinating, does it? After all, any member of a "tribe" has markers to demonstrate their allegiance to the tribe. But Alex continued. "Don't you think instead this room should be bursting with products made by competitors? Or other solutions consumers turn to instead of the company's products?"

It was a thought provoking point. At most companies, it is a mark of shame to use anything other than the company's product. I doubt that you would see many tubes of Crest at Colgate-Palmolive. Try bringing a Coke product into Pepsi. Steve Ballmer from Microsoft famously berated an employee last year for using an iPhone at a company event. I remember a few years ago when we were working for DHL and we committed a cardinal sin. Not only did we send the company something via FedEx. It was an invoice. (Fortunately a friendly client interceded and saved us from trouble).

It's kind of silly, isn't it? An innovation-focused company shouldn't have an avoid-the-competition-at-all-costs mindset. Instead, the company should always be wondering:

• What is the competition up to?
• Why might people prefer their products to ours?
• How does the customer think through purchase-and-use decisions?

Some companies have people who focus solely on competitive intelligence, but the simplest form of competitive intelligence is to encourage employees to act like "regular" customers. Pick whatever solution gets the job done better than anyone else.

Intentionally try the competitor's products to see what works and what doesn't work. Don't consider it a mark of shame. Tell your boss that you are spending every minute doing market research to try to identify the competitor's weaknesses—or your own.

Copyright © 2012 Harvard Business School Publishing. All rights reserved. Harvard Business Publishing is an affiliate of Harvard Business School.

Anthony is the managing partner of the innovation strategy firm Innosight and the author of The First Mile: A Launch Manual for Getting Great Ideas into the Market.

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