Innovation is a big word. It probably conjures up ideas about expansive R&D departments at corporate powerhouses like Apple and Google, but the truth is that innovation is imperative to businesses of all sizes in the 21st Century. The terms “innovation” and “small business” are no longer independent of each other.
That's because innovation is critical in letting businesses evolve to meet new needs and changing markets. Just consider startups like Airbnb and Uber, which absolutely disrupted industries steeped in traditional ways of thinking and working by taking advantage of fresh ideas and new technologies to fill a gap in customer needs.
Inevitably, no matter how well you're doing, you'll have to start considering how to make your small business more competitive and avoid becoming irrelevant. Innovation will be the core to nearly every answer. Perhaps that means finding new operation processes and methodologies, or it might mean developing new products or services that expand on what you offer. It could also mean expanding your market reach to new audiences. The end result of innovation will look different for every business, depending on industry and customer base, but in today's post, we'll discuss tips for how to use innovation.
Foster a Creative Work Environment.
Make a concerted effort to build a culture of innovation at your company that not only encourages but rewards creative thinking and new ideas and solutions. Each member of your staff has different experiences, strengths, and ways of considering problems, and that means they'll have new ideas and approaches to bring to the table. Here's a few things to keep in mind:
- Check in with your staff regularly (at least once quarterly) and ask for their input. Doing this at the right pace for your business might help you stay ahead of problems and trends.
- Ask the right questions. That means avoiding giving in to the urge to ask the common questions over and over again (e.g., “What do our customers want?”) and make a concerted effort to ask disruptive, thought-provoking ones (e.g., “What will our customers want but they don't know it yet?”).
- Consider breaking down departmental silos. In many ways, this can combine the first two points for this tip and change the game entirely. After all, how do you know whether your sales team has insights into what customers are going to want if they aren't brought into the process?
Keep an Eye to the Competition
Your competition has a lot of information to offer you, if you know how to look for it. By understanding who they are as a business (including their unique value proposition) and the customer base they serve, not to mention their marketing tactics, you can start to identify the gaps in their offerings. Often it's easier to identify what others lack than it is to see it in yourself, and by doing so, you can then address whether your business is meeting that need. It's also helpful to look at the reviews customers leave about your competition online.
Tap into New Needs and Shifting Trends
Speaking of customer commentary, you must keep an eye on social media. It's the new word of mouth, and it can tip you off to new trends and developing customer interests and needs in an organic and forward thinking way. However, that shouldn't be the end of how you keep on top of new developments. Consider having a chief innovation officer whose core responsibility is to stay on top of industry developments and drive the kinds of project development needed to sustain your company's vision.
Tap into Customer Insight
By now it's already clear that you need to thoroughly understand your customer base, but for this tip, we mean something a little more specific. You should be actively soliciting customer input, preferably across all channels. Considering the fact that it's cheaper to retain a customer rather than acquire a new one, the most important customers whose needs and expectations you need to meet are the ones that have already converted for you. Use surveys and other feedback methods to get insight into their purchase experience and how they perceive the way your business is run, as well as the actual products and services themselves. This will help guide whether or not the innovations you implement make sense and build consumer trust, rather than hurting it.
Always Be Learning.
One of the reasons the word “innovation” can be so imposing for a small business is because it's often confused with “invention.” The latter means coming up with something completely new, whereas innovation is a way to turn an old idea on its head and make it something better. In order to do that, you need to constantly teach yourself about what is and could be available. Do a lot of reading, especially from thought leaders in your industry, then read some more, particularly pertaining to entrepreneurship and disruption. Take in all kinds of media that offers new or challenging ideas, even if it's television shows like “Shark Tank,” and put yourself (and your staff) into situations that will prompt learning and thinking, such as conferences and cross-network conventions.
In the 21st Century, innovation and small business must go hand-in-hand. Technology has changed the way customers engage with brands and what they expect out of the products and services they receive, and innovation is the only way to stay ahead of the curve. What you need to remember is this: As a small business, you're actually in a better position to innovate than a bigger business that's entrenched in particular mindsets and methodologies. When approaching the topic "How do I make my small business more competitive?," innovation should top your list.