Innovation, Startup Advice

Four lessons on customer-focused innovation from Uber’s Susan Anderson

Stephanie Palmer-Derrien /

In an age when technology is keeping people more connected than ever, it’s important for businesses, and particularly startups, to keep their customer in mind when they’re innovating.

Speaking at the Disruptive Innovation Summit 2018 in Sydney today, Susan Anderson, general manager for Uber in Australia and New Zealand, said businesses have to be willing to disrupt themselves in order to unlock the best results for their customers.

“You have to make those choices with the long-term in sight,” she said.

Modern day customers have the ability to make a product go viral — something that has been crucial to Uber’s success. But it’s also something the ride-sharing giant has “been on the downside of” as well, said Anderson. Whether its cultural issues, or its relationship with local small businesses, the past 12 months have been challenging for Uber, to say the least.

So, how can businesses make sure they’re customers are front-of-mind when they’re developing new products? Anderson shared some insights on the matter.

1. Focus on customers, not features

Anderson says businesses should avoid building innovation solely around a new technology or feature that becomes available to them.

“The problem with that is that you’re not starting with the customer in mind,” she says.

“If you actually start with what customers want and ‘how do we solve that’, rather than, ‘what do we have and how do we market that to customers’, we end up with a much richer, deeper product proposition that can really help change customer behaviour.”

With this in mind, however, innovation doesn’t have to be a “big, bold thing”, she says.

For example, Anderson says the innovation behind UberEATS is simply that food can be at the door in 15 minutes, and that’s not a major change to the way the food delivery works, but it “changes the whole dichotomy of the industry”.

The answer lies in “thinking about what aspect of that customer journey is the most important, and then zooming in on that,” she says.

2. Don’t ask customers what they want

It might sound controversial, but Anderson advises against asking customers what they want.

“Where we’ve designed things around that, we’ve not always got the right answers,” she says.

Rather, it can be more productive to find out where the friction points are “without asking customers to design a product for you”.

Things go wrong when “not enough attention has been paid to the detail of the execution of the customer journey”, Anderson says.

She advises businesses to put themselves in the shoes of someone using a product, experiencing all the user processes and even looking at the visual aspects for the first time.

“Sometimes it’s small details that are the difference between things that are slick and excellent and things that fall a bit flat,” Anderson says,

3. Innovation as culture

When it comes to innovation, “the key thing is how do you deal with things that don’t go how you thought they would,” Anderson says. And this comes down to company culture.

If people feel that they will be penalised if they take a risk that doesn’t work out, innovation will ultimately be halted.

“They will always do what’s worked before … because that’s what you’re rewarding and recognising,” says Anderson.

Instead, companies should focus on rewarding people who think about customers, who are willing to “try something with excellence”.

If it doesn’t work out, there will still be lessons to learn from the experiment, Anderson says.

“You’re probably going to fail 10 times before you find the things that will work,” she adds.

4. Don’t lose sight of the customer

Anderson warns startup founders not to lose the focus on their customer as they grow.

Startups have the benefit of “closeness to customers”, she says; they’re often spending time with customers and managing support tickets themselves.

“As businesses scale, it’s really important to keep that focus, and to make sure you still spend time listening to customers, hearing what they’re actually telling you, not just looking at the numbers or hearing it through the team.”

If founders lose sight of the customer, they can lose sight of what the next opportunities are, says Anderson.

There can also be a realisation of just how difficult it would be to go back and change some aspects of a product, which can be “a blocker to listening and understanding what the opportunities are”.

But, ultimately it’s important to focus on what the customers are actually telling you.

“[Try] to not let the practicalities of the time frame of actually making the product change, or the difficulties of what that means for the financial model, let you not be open to the change that customers might ask for,” Anderson says.

StartupSmart attended the Disruptive Innovation Summit 2018 as a guest of the event. 

NOW READ: “No bullshit”: Atlassian’s Dom Price shares four key ingredients for scaling a startup

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Stephanie Palmer-Derrien

Stephanie Palmer-Derrien is a reporter at StartupSmart.

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