For John Deere, customer input drives product development
More than 170 years after the company was founded, John Deere still considers its government customers – whether at the federal, state or local level – to be a critical part of its business. So it should come as no surprise that the company goes out of its way to seek the opinions and insights of public-sector customers when developing its products.
“It’s company policy that we design our products based on the voice of the customer,” noted Greg Doherty, group director, product and technology marketing for John Deere’s Worldwide Commercial and Consumer Equipment Division.
When it comes to selecting mowers, utility tractors and other grounds maintenance products, government agencies – much like any other customer – place a high premium on product safety, durability and reliability as well as on customer service and dealer support, Doherty explained.
Developing grounds maintenance products that meet those high standards doesn’t happen by accident. John Deere develops it products based on a “very formal and quantitatively rigorous customer-requirements process,” according to Doherty. That process includes a number of mechanisms to solicit customer feedback, including focus groups, one-on-one interviews, quantitative surveys and observing customers using John Deere equipment.
“It’s very important that we take the voice of the customer into our design process,” Doherty said. “That’s our job, and we have people all over the world who are talking every day to customers. It’s important to John Deere that we design our product – no matter what type – to meet the needs of our customers.”
Dealers play a key role
An important component of John Deere’s efforts to seek customer feedback is its worldwide dealer network. Through John Deere’s dealer advisory councils, local dealers keep the company’s finger on the pulse of customers’ needs.
“Our dealers give us a lot of good input on things that we need – whether it’s a type of seat, or a cutting option for a mower, or a control for a tractor,” Doherty explained.
For example, feedback from John Deere dealers spurred the company to talk to customers in a number of segments – including government – about the need for an enhanced cargo box in some John Deere vehicles.
“And we’re in the process of changing the way we design cargo boxes,” Doherty said. “It may sound like a small thing, but sometimes these small things can be important when you’re using equipment every day.”
Another seemingly small modification that John Deere has made based on customer feedback is the addition of cupholders to its small tractors.
“A few years back, cupholders weren’t an issue on small tractors,” Doherty said. “Then all of a sudden people had minivans – one car company bragged that its minivan had something like 13 cupholders – and our customers said it’s important on our machines, because people get up early in the morning, they’re out mowing parks and they have their cup of coffee.”
While dealers provide valuable feedback on issues that affect everyday operators of John Deere equipment, they also are a voice for the equipment operators, fleet and government managers who spec and purchase the equipment.
“In the case of government and commercial customers, our dealers talk to the people who are buying the machines to find out what’s important to them,” Doherty said. “Support, price, resale value, parts availability, finance programs, municipal leases – we take into consideration all of those things that go into the purchase of these machines as well.”
When John Deere comes knocking …
One approach that John Deere uses to solicit customer input during the product-development process is letting customers beta-test new John Deere machines to put the products through their paces.
“We give machines to a customer, leave it with them for three or four months and contact them on a weekly basis to see how it’s working,” Doherty explained. “ … We might be testing a certain part of the machine, whether it’s the control system or the seat comfort or the deck performance.”
As a testament to John Deere’s commitment to obtain honest, unbiased input from machine users, the company often will conduct blind beta tests in which the equipment is not identified as a John Deere, Doherty added.
“It may be painted a different color, or it may not be coming from a dealer,” Doherty said. “A lot of times we’ll have trials that last maybe a day or two in which you don’t know who is actually sponsoring the research. We’ve done that many times, because the brand does bias the way that the user looks at the product.”
Regardless of the testing situation, Doherty credited government agencies for their willingness to help provide honest, constructive input.
“They’re dedicated to spending their taxpayer money wisely, and I think they see the benefit of having machines that they have helped design through their input,” Doherty said. “A lot of government employees and managers really go out of their way to help us, without even knowing that sometimes John Deere is the one asking for help. And I think that says something about the government customer – that they have the interests of their employees, their taxpayers and their management in mind. It’s pretty doggone impressive.”
Whether it’s the number of cupholders, the user-friendliness of a seat belt or the position of a lever, John Deere “takes the lead from our customers,” Doherty said. Because government customers are such a valued segment of John Deere’s business, he encouraged public-sector customers to participate in product testing if called upon.
“Because it helps us all,” Doherty said. “And we’re very proud of the fact that customers are a big part of our design process.”