Customer innovation as a future-oriented business strategy

Niko Group – Illuminating Innovation

How can we encourage our staff to innovate? What opportunities are there for our business to evolve and survive? How do we align our business to a future-oriented strategy? At the Niko Group, the reference in electro-technical solutions and services for the residential and tertiary markets, they had their questions ready when they went to Vlerick for an extended customised programme.

Patrick Van Steelandt, Vice-President Strategy at Niko Group, knows the company’s current needs better than anyone. “Our organisation’s needs have evolved significantly in recent years. A few businesses have been bought up and a number of new ones established. The partnerships among the various entities, in particular the people working in marketing and innovation, demanded an overarching stimulus. In the framework of our strategic assessment, we also evaluated where our strengths lie and the direction we want to evolve in as a company. The first thing that emerged is the importance of customer intimacy, certainly with the installation technicians, who are important partners for us. A second element is that we want to move away from purely product-related innovation and take a broader view. How do you provide certain systems and integrate services into your offering? How can you evolve from one-off revenue models to monthly fees? We wanted to explore the opportunities for our business to evolve and survive.”

“We no longer think only in terms of our products. We are looking at how, as an important partner of the installation technician, we can improve his business.”
Patrick Van Steelandt, Vice-president of Strategy at the NIKO Group

Customer Innovation

That context made Patrick turn to Customer Innovation, the book by Marion Debruyne, Dean at Vlerick Business School. Patrick: “Customer Innovation raises a number of elements that appeared highly pertinent for us to work on. ‘In which context does your customer operate?’; ‘What issues is he faced with daily?’ ‘How can we help him to run his business better?’ In the past we all too often had the tendency to look only at the problems our customers had with our products or to help them to perform better with our products. We wanted to expand on that. How can we, as an important partner for the installation technician, help him run his business? More than just what our products can do for him. In a slightly different context, this also means that it is important for us to monitor the ecosystem during a project and to look at who is playing what role. Who will be managing, advising and taking certain decisions? It could be the installation technician or the architect, the consultancy firm, the project developer or the site manager. That is also relevant for knowing how to approach each party.”

“During the two years, there is a contact moment every month when we address the theory, cases and how to practically apply what people have seen and heard during the programme.”
Patrick Van Steelandt, Vice-President Strategy at the NIKO Group

Uniform terminology

When Niko Group enrolled for Illuminating Innovation, Vlerick already had a management programme on leadership and coaching. That programme addresses many of the methods in Marion Debruyne’s book. Patrick: “We thought it would be very useful for every person in our company to speak the same language and to use specific terminology so that we learn to think in the same framework. That is why, in partnership with Vlerick, we developed a programme for our product managers, the marketing and communication staff and the R&D people. We opted for an extended programme spread over two years, giving us the time to look at things in depth. Each month there is a contact moment when we address the theory, cases and how to practically apply what people have seen and heard during the programme. The participants work in groups on projects related to their daily jobs. We think that is the best way to broaden their thinking patterns. They also learn to look at problems from three viewpoints: the short-term, mid-term and long-term. For example, how do you oversee a possible disruption that you are faced with? But above all, it is about awareness of the fact that you can innovate in a multitude of ways. Not only in relation to the product or product features.”

Straight from practice

“During the programme, we work on defining our strategy within the Niko Group. We regularly pick out themes which people can focus on during the programme. Narrative elements are provided from customer innovation. The participants incorporate these in the projects they are working on. One example is Niko Home Control as a modern electrical installation. At a certain point, our people started thinking about how we can integrate safety aspects in the NHC narrative. What kind of partnerships would be required for that? Which story should we develop? Another theme is putting NHC in the market as a modern installation. Do we need to convince the turnkey firms that they should use this as the standard electrical installation? How do we determine the price? How should we position ourselves? How do we get the sales departments at the turnkey companies interested? Another aspect in this is our own sales department. How do we go about attracting larger projects? Should we look further afield than the installation technicians? And that brings us back to the ecosystem of all the people involved in our projects.

Tangible results

The programme started in January 2015. Since then, the initial results have made themselves felt in every day practices. The most important aspect for the Niko Group was broadening thought patterns about innovation, and according to Patrick that mind-set is evolving in the right direction. “An example of a theme addressed during the programme is learning to assess fast whether an idea is feasible. Make a risk analysis: better to fail quickly and recognize you were wrong than to continue working on ideas or concepts for too long only to realise eventually that they are going nowhere. The project proposals now presented by our staff clearly show that their field of vision is broader than in the past. The various companies within the group are working together more. It is difficult, of course, to stick a figure on return on investment, but if I compare our reasoning and working methods to a year and a half ago, then we are making serious progress. The programme is ultimately one element in our strategic plan to double the size of our company within five years. If I look at the situation now, we are on the right track and that is in part thanks to the programme at Vlerick.”

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