Coal, Emissions

Priming the Product Pipeline

Issue 11 and Volume 109.

Listening to the customer is a critical step in the development of products that truly meet industry needs.

By: John Hoeft, Advanced Marketing Insights

Although electricity is the “product” that governs the power industry, generating and delivering that product relies on a host of other products along the way. Everything from mining equipment and pipelines to gas turbines and emissions control systems have a role to play. These products must meet the needs of their respective customers so that together they can produce electricity reliably, cost-effectively and with manageable environmental impacts. This article recommends that the marketing department “run ahead” of the company and its engineering department to characterize not just the technical specifications but, equally important, the spoken and unspoken wants of the customer.

This process is referred as the “technology roadmap,” where marketing, engineering, manufacturing, and purchasing work together as a cross-functional team developing the future technologies and solution paths necessary to meet the company’s future needs. Figure 1 provides a general schematic of the technology roadmap process; individual elements will be described in this article.

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In the power generation industry, electrical and mechanical engineers typically develop and improve the products and services used for producing electricity. Engineers, for example, can optimize metallurgical elements to withstand the extreme heat and friction encountered in rotating machinery. However, most power industry companies can cite examples of robust products that never achieved the projected ROI (return on investment) because the market did not accept the product (due to the specification, costs, available options or other shortcomings with the product).

Companies cannot successfully release non-saleable or under-performing products. Therefore, companies should implement a product development process that internalizes market input information in order to ensure the highest probability of profitable product launches. Otherwise, the company will suffer setbacks that may cost shareholders significant earnings.

Voice of Customer

Companies that employ six-sigma quality assurance techniques often use “fluffy” marketing information and translated customer research to conduct product development. Marketing should convert the information into measurable, technical requirements that engineering departments can use to conceive and develop technology paths providing better value to customers.

Six-sigma consultants refer to this voice-of-customer (VOC) process – where the marketplace expresses its needs and wants – as a decisive integration tool in the execution of technology roadmaps for products and services. By converting customer information from raw data into critical-to-quality (CTQ) specifications, engineering is better able to define technology paths. The business can then determine if the stakeholders are able to earn a desired performance return.

The area where the marketplace, technology and the business intersect defines the opportunities that exist for design-for-six-sigma projects. With proper analysis of all critical success factors, any power generation product or service company can better understand the company’s development needs and identify potential gaps in the company’s offerings.

The optimum phrase in the previous paragraph is, “With proper analysis…” It is generally agreed that engineering can design the best products according to the written product specification. The business performance model is known. The major unknown, then, is the marketplace. The power generation marketplace is variously described as vast, changing, uncertain, global, regional, centralized, decentralized, regulated, unregulated, cyclical, dependent, short, volatile, shifting, hesitant to change, and unique. However, companies – and more specifically the engineers developing product specifications – rarely take the time to understand the spoken and unspoken wants and needs of the customer before identifying technology solutions that supposedly match the business vision.

A four-step VOC process can capture marketplace knowledge to thoroughly understand the customer’s needs and wants:

  1. Customer Discovery
  2. Customer Interface
  3. Voice Development
  4. Voice-to-Product Conception

Customer Discovery

To get a project off on the right step, the marketing group leads a team represented by marketing, engineering and manufacturing to define a charter for the technology roadmap. The charter clarifies what is expected of the team, keeps the team focused and aligned with organization priorities, and transfers the project goal from the concept champion to the team. Elements of the project charter include a business case or financial impact, problem statement, goal statement, project scope, roles of team members, milestones/deliverables, and support required.

In the customer discovery step, the team conducts interviews, participates in briefings and reviews various data including:

  • Customer complaints (phone and written)
  • Problems or service hot lines
  • Technical support calls
  • Customer service calls
  • Claims, credits, contested payments
  • Sales reporting
  • Product return information
  • Warranty claims
  • Web page activity

One tool commonly used in the customer discovery step is the SIPOC Map, which lists the suppliers, inputs, process, outputs, and customers of the chartered process. Table 1 illustrates a representative SIPOC map for a power generation project, in this case, a gen-set installation.

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The discovery phase typically leads to the development of a customer matrix, which helps identify the internal and external customers in the target market segment. With no single customer voice, different types of customers usually have different needs and priorities. Market are segmented according to various criteria:

  • Customer status: former customers, current customers, customers of competitors, substitute customers
  • Where they are in the “customer chain”
    • Internal user
    • Distributor
    • End User
    • Type of products or services purchased
  • Purchasing volume
    • High
    • Medium
    • Low
    • Geography
  • Reason for buying
  • Industry, division or department
  • Demographics, such as gender or age

Table 2 is an example of a customer matrix for equipment used in the power generation market. An OEM may wish to contact the various customers to better understand their motivations and values.

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A diverse array of market segments and types of customers is critical versus the quantity of interviews. Per research completed by Griffin and Hauser, a distinct relationship exists between the number of visits and the volume/value of information collected:

  • 6 visits yield 50 percent of new information
  • 12 visits yield 75 percent of new information
  • 20 visits yield 90 percent of new information

Customer Interface

The VOC process collects data in one of two ways: reactive and proactive. Reactive information is supplied without taking action, such as information associated with customer complaints, service calls, or warranty claims. Proactive data is acquired through various instruments: market research, customer interviews and meetings, focus groups, ethnographic research (e.g. direct customer observation), contextual inquiry or empathic design studies, customer feedback, customer (both current and potential) surveys, comment cards, data gathering during sales visits or calls, benchmarking, quality scorecards, user group feedback, and web-based surveys, conjoint analysis and virtual focus groups.

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Product developers can act on this information in various ways. A VOC Action Plan (Table 3), for example, features notes and information regarding the customer interview to ensure a diverse group of customers within the interested segment provide valid data. The VOC Action Plan lists:

  • The main customers who use the products and services, making note of potential segments that might be relevant to the project
  • What information is needed from customers
  • Available reactive and proactive sources of information about customer needs
  • Which customers will be contacted, when and how

Face-to-face interaction with a customer can provide a wealth of data and knowledge unobtainable by other means. Customer observation is a good first step in proactive data collection. Experts recommend the use of the ethnography-qualitative method of researching customer needs. This involves spending time in the field observing customers in their environment in order to better understand their lifestyle or culture as a basis for understanding their needs for a new product. A deep understanding of the customer can lead to fundamental insights that impact product design, feature sets, product positioning, marketing communications, advertising execution, and more.

By getting customers and the competition’s customers to demonstrate in detail how they use products or services on the job site, unspoken needs can be cataloged and specific improvement opportunities identified. These unarticulated needs can provide delighters, or “wow” factors, that lead to significant product enhancements.

To ensure validity, companies should develop an interview guide comprised of segmented questions, repeatable throughout the interviewing process. Photos and video should be taken in the customers’ environment to show the ruggedness required. Finally, a debriefing session with team members should be conducted immediately after the interview to discuss general observations, fill in gaps in the notes, and validate what worked and did not work in the interview guide.

Voice Development

After completing the fieldwork, the project team synthesizes the data (interview notes, observation notes, video or audio recordings, etc.) into meaningful findings that can be used directly to support product development efforts. Because much of the data gathered will be verbal, an affinity diagram process is used to organize language data into related groups. The affinity diagram positively affects the process by encouraging breakthrough thinking, helping identify patterns in mountains of data, quickly organizing large amounts of language data, and encouraging ownership of results.

The next step, the Kano Model, helps categorize the “voice needs,” which fall into three groups: (1) “taken for granted” (2) “competitive” (3) “delighters” or “wow factors.” When interviewed, customers typically describe more of the “competitive” needs. They do not describe the “taken for granted” specifications that are necessary to sell the product because they assume these specifications are known and understood. They also do not describe the “delighters” because they have not experienced that product or service offering. The delighters provide market penetration and margin enhancement opportunities if they are discovered before the competition. Table 4 illustrates the Kano Model for a new gen-set product under development.

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The next steps include creating the functional requirements described by the customer in the proactive research, and writing a useful needs statement. The team identifies truly critical items from the customers’ perception of quality, which are measurable, and establishes specifications to determine whether or not the need can be met.

For example, if a customer’s operations management team is concerned about technicians being able to troubleshoot and adjust gen-set parameters, the developers can translate this need into measurable, quantifiable and deliverable items related to more easily configurable controls. The tuning tools must be intuitive enough to facilitate all adjustments and also be fail-safe (i.e., smart controls that will not misadjust or damage the system). Specific capabilities built into control navigations could include:

  • Time to view help screen: 3 seconds
  • Time to view fault screen: 3 seconds
  • Time to start engine: 2 seconds
  • Time to adjust alarm/shutdown with password: 10 seconds
  • Time to test safeties: 5 minutes

Once the customer’s voice is better understood, the Quality Function Deployment (QFD) technique can be used for translating customer needs into appropriate company programs and technical requirements. The QFD matrix (Table 5) helps untangle the web of needs and the corresponding requirements. A small cross-functional team ranks the functional requirements and captures the technical importance based on customer priority.

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Table 5 lists several customer needs along with various improvement options. The customer importance factor is set by the cross-functional team and is applied as a weighting factor to the sum of the other scores to arrive at a total score. In this example, the group believes that the customer’s improved uptime would best influence the project.

Voice-to-Product Conception

The engineering department will then begin to specify the concept and deploy the VOC, while adding quantitative, physical/scientific terms that describe how to manufacturer/provide the product or service. Again, all specifications will be measurable to evaluate success. Engineering will also integrate the critical parameter management (CPM) system, which is a scorecard measurement tool that links critical-to-quality specifications to key customer requirements. The CPM process starts with technology development and ends when the product is discontinued.

In the end, forward-thinking companies must be prepared to conduct enough ongoing voice-of-customer activities to provide the marketplace with winning products year after year. The best way to achieve this is to let the marketing department run ahead of the rest of the company to acquire all the information that will enable the company to engineer greatness into its products.


John Hoeft is a Principal at Advanced Marketing Insights, where he consults for technically advanced products and service companies. His company’s services include communication strategies, competitive intelligence research, strategic planning, and product sales initiatives. Hoeft holds degrees in electrical engineering and a MBA from the University of Wisconsin system and has over 15 years of experience in the industry. He has authored several papers, presented at conferences, participated as a panelist, and chaired a number of expert panel discussions on power generation issues. Hoeft can be reached through