The present work deals with the integration of customers in a companys development process in order to invent customer centric products. The involvement per se is not a new idea, yet this thesis especially focuses on how small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) which are active in a global business to business (B2B) market can use this participation for new product development (NPD). In order to investigate this subject from different perspectives, this thesis consists of a theoretical literature review and a practical case study. At the beginning of the theory part different user roles are presented. In general, it is stated that customers have taken a more active role and therefore have been put in the centre of businesses in an increasing way (Galbraith 2005, 8). This can be confirmed by the case study company, as the CEO and three interviewed employees (2017, Interview) stated that customers play an important role for the company. Customers are seen as partners, as a source for ideas, as co-innovators and as product testers. Further on there is a match between theory (Galbraith 2005, 22) and practice concerning the fact that the relationship between a company and its customers is very important for information sharing among the involved parties.
The way how new products get developed changed from a closed process where all the work is done inside the company borders to a more open process where ideas flow in and out through the borders of firms (Chesbrough 2003, 44). This can be strengthened by the case study results. Customer requests are valued and integrated by the case study company, which is a form of open innovation. Additionally this case study analysis confirms that SMEs are very active in nonmonetary fields to acquire outside knowledge, as also suggested by Brunswicker and Vanhaverbeke (2015, 1243). Further on, many companies who are active in the field of industrial new product development use some kind of stage gate processes (Gröndlund et al. 2010, 110). Cooper (2014, 23ff) and Gröndlund et al. (2010, 117ff) present agile versions of stage gate processes. They should help companies to evaluate external ideas, decrease the risk of bigger projects, while being quick and un-bureaucratic for smaller projects. However, the case study company does not have a fixed innovation process. Customer requests are evaluated concerning their feasibility, their riskiness and if there is a market for their requests. When the decision is made to further develop an idea, the first step is to develop a concept for receiving feedback, followed by a prototype which is tested together with customers for additional feedback (three employees 2017, Interview).
For developing customer centric products it is important to know who the target customers are (Goodrich/Aiman-Smith 2007, 29). According to Gassmann et al. (2017, 54) it is essential that this customer group is not too homogeneous, as this could lead to a loss of innovation capabilities. The case study company uses a mixture of the above stated recommendations. Involved customers are all active in the same segment, yet they have various backgrounds and different needs. Further on they have been integrated during ideation and launching stage. However, the CEO and the employees also stated some downsides of customer involvement which might lead to the same effects stated by Chang and Taylor (2016, 58) and Brockhoff (2003, 474). For example, customers` uncertainty about their needs, too expensive ideas, and maybe too many involved clients can lead to a decrease of the overall development speed. Further on, too many minor ideas for product changes may result in too less free resources for revolutionary innovations. This might lead to the second negative effect, the trap of incremental innovations (Brockhoff 2003, 474).
One trend which has great influence on SMEs is the speeding up of communication and therefore removing physical limitations of time and space, due to the possibilities of the internet (Savrul et al. 2014, 40). This trend can be confirmed by the diverse communication channels which are used by this SME. According to the CEO (2017, Interview) they stay in contact with their customers by Telephone, Mail, Whatsapp, WeChat, Facebook, and of course the official homepage. The main findings, from theory (Galbraith 2005, 9ff / Gröndlund et al. 2010, 120 / Cooper 2014, 20ff / Brentani 2015, 25), the case study and the interviews, which should be considered by SMEs can be summarized as follows: Good relationship and trust are important points for a successful cooperation with customers. The company has to evaluate ideas according to their effort/benefit ratio. In order to develop a product with global fit diverse customers should be asked for feedback.