Business Insider not too long ago published a list of some of the worst product launches in history. While it's funny to recall that Coke once thought it was a good idea to abandon its classic formula, many of these stories are learning opportunities for today's accounting firms planning their strategies for the future.
Innovation doesn't just happen magically. A smooth launch of a product or service is the result of countless hours of research, across-the-board adoption by your team, and a marketing plan that encourages customers to give your latest offering a try. All too often, people assume that if they hash out the marketing first, everything else will fall into place.
It's important to put the right amount of time into your strategy and not fall into this trap. Without a plan, you can end up wasting time and money on marketing a service you aren't able to deliver. To avoid that fate, follow the suggestions below for better implementation of innovation.
Research and strategize
One of the most important steps in starting a company is creating a comprehensive business plan. Similarly, when you seek to add a new service or product line, you should develop a plan for it from the earliest stages.
Development of the plan begins with research to determine what services or products your business should consider adding. You can look to all kinds of sources for inspiration. Maybe the great idea will come from customer or client requests. Perhaps it will arise from looking at the Big Four and seeing which new services they are launching.
A good way to unearth potential new services or products is to interview your clients or customers and find out about their businesses' pain points and future aspirations. You can then brainstorm new ways to serve them. Another approach is to look to other professions for inspiration, adapting trends or customer service practices to your business. All these routes can be fruitful, so keep your eyes and ears open for ways to add value to your customer experience.
Once you've settled on an innovation, it's time to strategize. Sit down with all of your key players and determine, in as much detail as you can, what the service or product will be. Then designate which parts of the service are the highest priority to develop. This will help you avoid trying to bite off too much right away.
Hash out timelines and workflows
After the initial stages are set, you need to project how long it will take to launch the new service. It's best to be conservative in your estimates. A service that's ready to go early is great, but one that requires delay after delay will frustrate your teams internally and keep your customers on edge. To help the process move more quickly, dedicate a special task-force team for R&D solely to the new initiative — or, if you are with a small firm, designate a champion who has the passion to push the project. Alternatively, you can outsource to experts in the area that you are developing. Trying to balance new service development with a regular client workload will only cause both to suffer.
One benefit you derive from dedicating time to researching the new service is the insight you gain on how to eventually market it. This is another reason to hold off on marketing until you have a better idea of what the launch will look like.
Test, test, test
At every iteration of development, you should be testing the service. A Fast Company guide called "How to Test Products Like a Googler" notes that using a tiered approach allows you to progressively gather more feedback as the launch approaches. "We first conduct formative and evaluative user research," the guide notes, "then we move to a 'Trusted Tester' program, which helps us gather feedback at scale, and finally we launch an 'Early Adopter' program to scale even further."
Consider adopting a similar approach for your testing — albeit on a smaller scale than world-conquering companies like Google. At first, tests should be internal but should include team members who are not working on the service and can analyze it with a fresh perspective. As you move further along, bring in some trusted advisers or a small group of select clients to try the offering for free. Ask them for feedback on how to improve, whether the service is valuable, and if it's something they'd be willing to pay for. There will always be kinks to iron out after launch, but thorough testing will limit them as much as possible.
Prime the runway
You should really zero in on your marketing during the final stages of development. By this point, you understand why you are delivering this service line, how it will be executed, and what the intended outcomes are. The more background you have, the better you will be at communicating the value to customers, which is what effective marketing is all about.
You should rachet up your marketing efforts six to eight weeks before launch. At that time, you can begin to create organizationwide knowledge and enthusiasm for the offering. Train your teams on how to discuss and leverage your innovation with current clients as well as using it to entice new ones.
Sure, innovation is great, but innovation without a plan would be better described as wishful thinking. By being transparent and setting the right expectations, defining what needs to be done at each stage, and communicating often, you will innovate in a way that delivers value. Plan early, test often, and do the legwork required to make a new service stick.
— Amy Vetter, CPA/CITP, CGMA, is the CEO of The B3 Method Institute, a keynote speaker and adviser, Technology Innovations Taskforce leader for the AICPA's Information Management Technology Assurance (IMTA) Executive Committee, and the author of the book Integrative Advisory Services: Expanding Your Accounting Services Beyond the Cloud, published by Wiley. Learn more at amyvetter.com. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Jeff Drew, senior editor, at Jeff.Drew@aicpa-cima.com.