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Insight is critical to innovative product development and informing business strategy. If a product doesn’t meet the needs of the customer or you take the wrong strategic direction, the consequences can be costly. That’s why listening to multiple audiences, including your own employees and business partners in addition to individual customers, can greatly reduce the risks of some of your biggest and potentially most expensive business decisions.

At the 2018 Customer Intelligence Summit, Susan Corbelli, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District’s (SMUD’s) market research supervisor, talked about getting a 360-degree view by talking to their three main publics.

SMUD has three insight communities. Their Plugged In community includes residential customers. It launched more than five years ago with the intent to drive faster, cost-effective engagement, and a more enjoyable, consistent research experience for customers. Shortly afterwards, SMUD launched Power Voice to bring together commercial customers. The most recent community, Currents, is for its employees.

Susan says their online communities support different areas of the business, including developing and testing marketing materials, customer experience, improving existing product and services, and launching successful new programs and products.


Getting a 360-degree view to launch a successful new product

One example where they used their three insight communities to develop a new product is the SMUD Energy Store, an online marketplace. The initial concept owes its birth to the experience of the company’s CCO, whose refrigerator died while full of food to serve guests that were soon coming over. She wanted to quickly find a replacement before her food went bad and ice cream melted. Online searches evoked confusion rather than trust, so she thought "wouldn’t it be great if SMUD could provide quick, actionable refrigerator buying advice?" Their CCO’s bad experience resulted in a product development opportunity. SMUD’s product development team collaborated with the insight team to come up with a solution.

Here’s a look under the hood for how SMUD involved their three insight communities throughout the product development process for the SMUD Energy Store.

  • The residential community participated in a four stage co-creation exercise for the store from idea generation, idea evaluation, refinement and selection. At the end of the four stage process they had ten customer generated and refined concepts they could use to help develop the online marketplace. This project was instrumental in developing the concept for the SMUD Energy Store and the final product included the majority of the features from the customer-developed winning concepts.
  • Employees tested ads and beta-tested the site before it launched.
  • And most recently, commercial customers tested ideas for expanding products and services to SMUD’s commercial customers to determine whether there was demand to create a commercial version of the SMUD Energy Store.

Thanks in large part to the feedback from the online communities, SMUD successfully launched the SMUD Energy Store. As of August 2018, they’d successfully sold 12,465 items and over 1.5 million in sales (after discounts). There are 175 products across 10 categories. And SMUD is launching their commercial products site in Q4 2018.

In addition to the overwhelming success of the store, SMUD has received industry honors. They won Chartwell’s Bronze Award for Program Marketing and were runner-up for Vision Critical’s Product Innovation Visionary Award.

Susan says she doesn’t believe the SMUD Energy Store would have been as successful without the input of their insight communities. “SMUD’s decisions about the name of the store, features of the online platform, types of products offered, and many other areas were guided by community input. Because of their input, we are seeing good sales and high satisfaction in NPS ratings for the SMUD Energy Store. Getting early input from your customers and incorporating their feedback means you’re much more likely to create a successful product!”


Lessons learned about innovation

Susan says they’ve learned a lot about innovation over the last few years. Here are her tips:

1. Get feedback early to save time and effort. Preferably in the concept development phase rather than near the end of development.

2. Employee input is important, but remember you’re not the customer. Make sure to validate and test with customers directly.

3. Test competitive products. Looking at other online shopping platforms to learn what customers like and don’t like helps inform early stage development.

4. Test the product in prototype stages to catch fixes early.

5. Marry UX and market research, to create the type of product customers want that is also easy and enjoyable to use.

6. It doesn’t have to be perfect the first time. It’s better to iterate and retest to refine products based on customer feedback.


Segmentation, governance and stakeholder relations are key to success

SMUD shares three lessons for successfully running their three insight communities:

1. Because SMUD is a community-owned electric utility it needs to consider different types of customers, including commercial and residential, which are divided into eight different energy segments with differing needs and attitudes. Susan said having multiple online communities allows SMUD to more easily hear from these different segments. The research team can test ideas and programs across different customer segments and do a deeper dive with a certain segment on a particular topic.

2. With that many communities and segments, it’s important to have a process to manage them, Susan added. To that end, SMUD has one person as lead for each community who manages research requests and schedules activities. Susan said she’s made sure the organization knows her research team can provide customer feedback quickly and cheaply that includes light-weight reporting for faster decision-making and room for experimentation.

3. To keep internal stakeholders engaged, Susan’s team shares links to real-time results so everyone can see how they’re shaping important decisions and product development.


Everyone adds perspective

Big business decisions and products deliver massive wins when done right, but the bigger the payoff, the bigger the risk. Having a 360-degree view of multiple audiences means smarter decisions and fewer misfires. Through cross-pollination of stakeholders, opportunities will beget more opportunities to quickly gather insight that can inform new products and services and win big with customers.

“It’s been a great experience having our 3 communities and co-creating the products and services that they want and need,” concluded Susan.

 Insight-Driven Decision Making 

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