The Optimal Way to Innovate

By Neil Baron
August 12, 2013

Increase the value your offerings deliver to customers.


Since Salzenstein was one of the top players in the world, you might think it would be hard for him to relate to the world of his students. However, his own struggles with defeats and injuries as a player enable him to relate to the challenges and frustrations of everyday players who want to get better.   Just like the most innovative companies, Jeff constantly seeks to identify the sources of frustration for his customers (students). He learned that understanding what customers’ problems need to be solved is the key to innovation.

Jeff’s innovative approach to tennis combines his background as a top 100 player with knowledge gleaned from studying a variety of martial arts. He used these insights to develop a series of unique drills and instructions that provide new ways of making tennis less frustrating to learn. 

Salzenstein’s success reinforces the notion that empathy for your customers’ plight is key to innovation. He now virtually coaches more than 20,000 players in more than 30 countries.

What would you see if you actually spent a day observing what happens in a typical “day in the life” of your customers? What would you learn if you asked them specific open-ended questions about their frustrations, goals and challenges? Getting to the root of the problems they face helps you to figure out what tools you have in your arsenal to help them solve those problems.

Questions Before Answers

So empathy obtained from asking the right questions and observing customers is the key to innovation, but why is it

so hard?

As Armbruster of UnitedHealthcare puts it, we are trained starting in kindergarten to provide answers. We are not taught to ask questions or identify problems.

How often have you been in a meeting when the most important question you should ask is: What problem are we trying to solve?

Despite the challenges, it is important to get input from the right customers by asking the right open-ended questions. You want to become an expert in their business, their challenges and their strategic initiatives.

Of course, the exact questions you should ask depend on your specific situation, the individuals you are speaking with and what you hope to learn.

It is often difficult to really listen to customers. Some get caught up in the tyranny of seemingly urgent activities or lack the skills and confidence to effectively interact with customers. Others let their egos get in the way, so that it becomes difficult to really hear what customers are saying.

Your stress hormones can be your worst enemy. I’ve seen the fight-or-flight response derail the conversation. You might get defensive and argue with the customer or get really nervous and rush through the conversation in an attempt to get it over with quickly. Neither approach will yield valuable insights to drive innovation.

With training, coaching and practice, product professionals can get better at asking questions and listening to the answers. On occasion, an outside expert can be engaged to ensure that these listening sessions are conducted in an objective manner, free of bias.

A key outcome from this step is a deeper understanding of your customers’ challenges and obstacles to success. You should collect these stories, share them with your colleagues and use them as the foundation for innovation.

Implementing the value-focused innovation method is not easy. If it were, more companies would do it. But focusing on solving customer problems, rather than analyzing internal research output, is the smart approach to doing innovation right.

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About the Authors

  • Neil Baron is an internationally recognized authority on selling and marketing innovative products, services and solutions sold to risk-averse customers. He has served in a variety of senior marketing and management roles at companies such as IBM, Digital Equipment Corporation, Sybase, Art Technology Group, Brooks Automation and ATMI. He is passionate about involving customers throughout the go-to-market process. In 2009, he started Baron Strategic Partners, a consulting firm focused on helping organizations launch groundbreaking productsand services and reenergize older ones. Contact Neil at or through

Categories:  Strategy

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