Most successful companies today—including those that manufacture the tools used by electricians—say they are market-driven. That means while sales are essential, the products or services a company offers must be driven by need. Except in some consumer markets, if no one actually needs what a company is selling, failure is certain.

While aggressive advertising and promotion may create the perception that a consumer product is needed, it is unlikely that hyperbole will convince electricians or professionals in other trades to buy a tool that serves no useful purpose.

How do manufacturers who market tools to the electrical industry know what tools are needed, what capabilities and features buyers want and what products are likely to be in demand in the future?

We invited key manufacturers of electrical tools to explain how they identify needs of the marketplace and how what they learn influences the products they design. Here are summaries of their answers.

How does your company learn what tools the electrical and datacom market needs and the features tool buyers want?

Greenlee Textron, Brian Allison, product manager: “We talk with customers, end-users, vendors we source from, field observations ... to find what we call the ‘Voice of the Customer.’ We approach end-user electricians to understand their impressions of hand tools. We want to know which tools they use every day on the job site and what we could create and market that would make their jobs faster, safer, and easier. Our customers have told us they wanted tools that were high quality and durable enough for daily use, as well as ergonomically designed to fit comfortably in their hands.”

Ideal Industries, Bruce Hartranft, business unit manager: “Ideal conducts ongoing research and development to ensure our newest generation of tools and supplies meet the needs of the professional electrician. That commitment to stay close to the customer takes our product managers and design engineers out onto job sites where we can interact with the pros as they are drilling holes, pulling cable, stripping wires, installing terminations and testing or certifying the runs. This is the only way we can maintain an appreciation of what they need on a daily basis and then apply that knowledge to our newest tools.

“Needs vary from region to region, so we try to work one-on-one with electricians all across the country.

“Many of the most practical product ideas do come from the electricians themselves. By listening carefully to what they like and don’t like about an existing tool or process, we are able to focus our future design directions to integrate their preferences. Solving even a small nuisance pointed out in a tool by an electrician can make a huge difference to the person who is using it day after day.”

Klein Tools, Jeff Konkle, manager of new product development: “Klein Tools uses a combination of methods for identifying new market needs. We take the time to understand our end-users needs and to become experts on what our end-users are doing with their tools. By combining this knowledge with our understanding of how the tool is made, we can develop innovative products that save our end-users time and money on the job. The new product development team regularly assesses its tools to determine if it can improve them in any way. Since we understand the manufacturing process, we examine ways to ‘tweak’ the manufacturing process to improve the tool.”

Milwaukee Electric Tool Corp., Jon Zick, chief engineer, concept R&D: “Milwaukee utilizes a variety of channels for gathering feedback, but talking with and directly observing people who actually use the tools is the best way to design the next generation of products. Visiting job sites to watch end-users tackling everyday tasks allows us to get a better understanding of the challenges they run into and how they’re currently solving these problems. Listening to customer feedback is obviously crucial, but manufacturers must also observe real-life scenarios to identify the next job site solution.”

How do you gather information?

Greenlee, Art Tsubaki, director of strategy: “Research is multifaceted. For tools, the best research is in the field, and we usually have best results doing that with Greenlee employees. We also have used telephone, mail and e-mail surveys. We rely on our public relations agency and others to deliver a well established database of contacts or we rely on our own database of customers. We will use outside research for supplementing the Greenlee employee research or for more market-oriented expectations. We have hired outside industrial design firms to help us look at customers and products in a different way.”

Ideal, Bruce Hartranft: “We aren’t selling mass-market goods, like fast food or sneakers. Our equipment is designed for a targeted group of professionals, so we work exclusively with them. That is why Ideal rarely uses ‘shotgun’ surveys, where a questionnaire is blasted out to thousands of unqualified respondents. This technique is simply not valid, as it can send a company off in the wrong direction.

“Our best research has come from close contact with a key account, either a major electrical contractor or distributor. For example, when we developed the new Kinetic T-strippers we would regularly set up ‘survey tables’ at IBEW halls during meeting nights. As the electricians came and went from the meeting, they could stop and give us feedback on prototype stripper designs. All the respondents were professionals who were interested in helping develop innovative tools that would make their work more productive.

“We also actively scan Internet blog sites to identify market trends. It’s fascinating how many trends have surfaced early on the Web only to show up on job sites a year or two later.”

Klein, Jeff Konkle: “We have found it to be most effective to gather market research by direct contact with our end-users, whether it is by walking on to the job site and talking with the people using our tools, or meeting the end-user at one of our distributor locations. Often, it is through contact such as this that an end-user might share his likes or dislikes, as well as ideas for what would make the tool better. We hire an outside firm to conduct formal research in the form of focus groups and we provide the research consultants that conduct our focus groups with specific criteria based on our objectives.”

Milwaukee, Jon Zick: “We conduct research ourselves and also use outside consultants to ensure the information we’re receiving is based on solid research data from across the entire field. This also helps us identify the geographic needs of different users, understanding our tools are being used in a variety of environments. We have used telephone interviews, mail and e-mail surveys, focus groups and direct contact, depending on the product. We prequalify each survey by asking questions related to the job or tools they use to ensure we’re building a good statistical sample. Distributor feedback is also crucial to the R&D process.”

Do you have ongoing programs to learn about product acceptance and problems?

Greenlee, Art Tsubaki: “Yes, Greenlee regularly involves customers in surveys about service and technology (electronic surveys, our Web site, etc.) to validate our research. One of our newest capabilities is the opportunity to collect new product ideas via our Web site.”

Ideal, Bruce Hartranft: “In addition to regularly inserting customer response cards into our new products, Ideal maintains a toll-free 800 line for customer comments. We also host a Web site ‘contact us’ portal for ongoing feedback from electricians. All feedback is tracked; if a response is necessary, a member of our product management staff will follow up.”

Klein, Jeff Konkle: “The Klein Tools Web site provides users with a venue for feedback on product improvements and suggestions. We take all end-user suggestions seriously, but will only consider implementing suggestions that are a good fit for the true professional user.”

Milwaukee, Jon Zick: “Product development begins with customer feedback and certainly does not end once a product is released to the market. Our team continues to monitor feedback directly from customers and distributors through the product’s entire life span—the Sawzall, for example, was introduced more than 50 years ago and is still receiving upgrades based on field research. Our Web site also has a forum for anyone to submit comments or ideas, and we maintain close contact with end-users to ensure we’re getting regular feedback. Customers may also contact us directly.”

Do you have products or product features that have resulted from customer input?

Greenlee, Brian Allison: “Yes, our new hand tool line of 100-plus hand tools. Greenlee had never been known for a comprehensive line of hand tools. Research led Greenlee to enter this market with a line of hand tools [including screwdrivers, saws, wrenches, pliers and hammers and accessories such as tool belts and gloves] that meets the needs of multiple generations of contractors—all in direct response to what customers requested.”

Ideal, Bruce Hartranft: “To develop our Twist-a-Nut screwdrivers, product management and design engineers applied the feedback from electricians. More than 20 separate prototypes were developed and market tested, each with progressive improvements, until we reached the optimum design for the tool.

“Examples of how research affected other products include PowerBlade drill-powered cable cutter (idea came from working with electricians on large project); Ideal jab saws (comments about ‘slippery’ die-cast saws resulted in an ergonomic Santoprene gripped tool); Kinetic T-strippers (design resulting from watching video tapes of electricians stripping wires led to ergonomically shaped handles to reduce wrist strain); Tuff-Grip Pro fish tape (answered complaints of case breakage by developing more durable case).”

Klein, Jeff Konkle: “Nut drivers used to be either magnetic-tip or hollow-shaft, but you couldn’t get both. Based on research, we realized that there was a need for both features in one tool—and we introduced our Klein Tools magnetic-tip hollow-shaft nut drivers. Our Journeyman line of tools features an innovative handle design of dual material that provides toughness and durability as well as offering comfort and a firm grip—which was the result of feedback from our end-users.”

Milwaukee, Jon Zick: “Milwaukee was also the first to introduce lithium-ion technology for power tools in 2005—a direct response to end-user requests for more powerful, lightweight cordless power tools. Our new V18 system features lithium-ion batteries that retrofit onto existing Milwaukee 18-volt tools, offering an immediate runtime upgrade. This allows electricians the opportunity to experience the latest advancements in battery technology with their current set of power tools.

“The Trade Titan series of work carts and accessories is one example of a new product that came directly from customer input. Watching how electricians and other tradesmen modified their existing carts identified an opportunity to better meet the needs of these trades.” EC

GRIFFIN, a construction and tools writer from Oklahoma City, can be reached at 405.748.5256 or up-front@cox.net.