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Most marketing professionals understand the value of understanding the customers' needs, wants and perspectives ("voice of the customer," or "VOC") in performing the marketing functions. Unfortunately, far too often the use of VOC focuses on testing marketing initiatives—messaging, advertising, promotions, and the like.

While it often used in the product/service development process as well, its role frequently is more limited than it should be.

VOC is often used to measure customer satisfaction with current products and services, identify gaps in current offerings to provide ideas for the next generation products, and validate ideas that were generated internally. A common misperception is that customers are good at providing input for product line extensions, which many refer to as "incremental innovation," but they lack the vision necessary to generate ideas for "radical" or "breakthrough" innovation—which results in a disruption of the industry and a change in the rules.

Radical innovation can occur in any facet of a business—the business model itself, processes used to run the business, products and services to name a few. This series of articles will focus on product/service innovation, but the principles apply equally well to other types of innovation. In this context, "products" will refer to both goods and services.

How can marketing professionals engage the customer to produce ideas for radical innovation? Marketing's leadership should materialize in five ways:

1. Use your VOC activities to explore new territory

VOC results range from "exploratory" to "validation." Exploration involves delving into new areas representing great uncertainty—you often don't know the right questions to ask, let alone the answers you will receive. Validation involves relatively low uncertainty: you are fairly confident of the answer, or at least you have a strong hypothesis, and you already know all of the questions you need ask.

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Leland D. Shaeffer is Managing Director or PLM Associates ( Reach him at