How a creativity meeting with key customers helped one company grow these important relationships

What does building key customer relationships have to do with creative problem solving? More than you might think. Most customer relationships are transactional or project focused. But one enterprising company decided to bring in some of its best customers for a creativity meeting - a novel idea that had an excellent outcome. And you can bet that these A-list customers appreciated the focused, creative attention on their needs. Here's how it worked.

What does building key customer relationships have to do with creative problem solving? More than you might think. Most customer relationships are transactional or project focused. But one enterprising company decided to bring in some of its best customers for a creativity meeting – a novel idea that had an excellent outcome. And you can bet that these A-list customers appreciated the focused, creative attention on their needs. Here’s how it worked.

A large company asked me to lead a creativity meeting to solve problems associated with their special customer program which provides favored services for their largest customers, and fosters a special relationship so they will become the sole supplier to these customers. The special services include a hot line to marketing, sales, and specific engineers for emergencies. In addition, R&D analyzed the customers’ products and did research to improve the quality and profitability of the product.

The problem-solving creativity meeting was intended mainly as prevention. They wanted to unearth any problems and solve them before they interfered with the special relationships. So they invited three of their best customers to send people to the creativity meeting. The three customers sent executives, top managers, and key professionals, about half of the 21 people present. The other half were the company’s own people.

The goals of the creativity meeting included strengthening the special relationship with these best customers, to resolve any hidden problems that existed, and head off any problems that loomed in the future. They wanted everyone to learn the advanced creativity procedures needed to solve mutual problems more creatively. That is, they wanted everyone to define problems more creatively; generate ideas more abundantly; and combine ideas more innovatively into creative trigger-proposals and workable solutions. They wanted to improve everyone’s creative thinking skills for everyday use.

The meeting started with a dinner session that lasted from 6 to 10 p.m. It included after dinner talks by each person, who was asked to tell who they were, why they were there, and what resources they brought to the meeting.

The second session, the next morning, included forming (and building) creativity teams, mixing the company’s people with customers, setting the creative climate, learning some creativity procedures and identifying problems.

The afternoon session defined these problems creatively, and used four diverse advanced creativity procedures to generate ideas so abundantly the walls and floor of the meeting room were covered with ideas on how to improve the special customer program. Finally, they started generating creative trigger-proposals, proposals that were not perfect and may not work, but sparked proposals that do work.

The evening session consisted of after dinner discussions. The following morning, each person presented their trigger-proposal on how to improve the special customer program to his or her creativity team for feed back and improvement, and a one page written proposal was handed to the head of the special customer program. Several of the creativity teams generated a blockbuster team proposal, which was also handed in.

The afternoon was spent in discussing the proposals, and in planning what to do next. Many committed action plans were made. Several people from the customer companies told me how much they appreciated what they had learned about advanced creativity.

Thus, the host company achieved their goals from this creativity meeting, and much more. The special relationship with their customers was enhanced; hidden problems surfaced and defused; everyone learned advanced creativity procedures to improve everyday creative thinking; and they all learned a creative process to solve mutual problems between the companies.

What struck me as effective about this creativity meeting was mixing the people from the company with its three best customers in a focused way to solve mutual problems. The interaction had a very serious purpose and an excellent outcome; and a good time was had by all.

Adapted from Team Creatvity At Work II: Creative Problem Solving At Its Best by Edward Glassman. Ph.D. He can be reached at his website, where he encourages readers of InnovationTools.com to send him your questions about your creativity and the creativity of your team.

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