How customer-focused innovation led to big sales for one manufacturer

4 minutes read

Nancy et Maud Simoneau, Groupe Simoneau

You would be hard pressed to find a more traditional and glamour-free business than manufacturing industrial boilers. That’s why it’s surprising to hear Nancy Simoneau compare her boiler company to the world of fashion when explaining the importance of keeping up with customers’ evolving tastes and needs.

“People in the fashion industry understand you have to be open to new things. You have to network, travel and see what’s going on elsewhere,” says Simoneau, President of Groupe Simoneau. “It’s the same for us. It’s so important for us to stay on top of what our clients want. It’s a matter of survival.”

A customer focus and commitment to innovation have produced remarkable results at the boiler repair and manufacturing company, founded by Simoneau’s father, René, some 30 years ago. The company, which employs 85, has worked hard to make its boilers more compact and energy efficient—qualities prized by industrial and commercial customers, who use them to make hot water and steam for heating and other uses.

Sales have hit almost $20 million, up from $1.5 million in 1996, when the company in Boucherville, Quebec, just southeast of Montreal, moved from mainly servicing boilers to manufacturing them.

Regardless of the industry, a key to building a strong, innovative business is digging to uncover what customers want—maybe even before they’re aware of it themselves. In the case of Groupe Simoneau, the company keeps in close contact with clients—“listening to them and working hard to understand the irritants and difficulties they are experiencing,” says Simoneau, who took over leadership of the company from her father in 2001.

Pushes team

Simoneau has pushed her engineering team to continually rethink boiler design. In one case, a client asked Simoneau to produce a boiler that met the lofty goal of 80% efficiency in converting energy into steam. “The engineering team came back to me and said: ‘Nancy, we’re at 79% and we can’t make it to 80,’” recalls Simoneau. “I told them, ‘I don’t know what you’re going to do, but I sold 80% and I’m not going to install something below that in hopes the client won’t notice. You have a week. Find a solution.’”

The team looked at the problem and found a way to recover more heat from the boiler’s exhaust. Once the boiler was installed, energy efficiency hit 82%, representing $300,000 in additional annual savings for the customer. From there, the team was able to further refine the design, bringing efficiency to 85% and making it a mainstay of Simoneau’s product line.

Jean Joncas, a BDC Business Consultant, says it’s critical to listen to your customers, build strong relationships with them and strive to anticipate their needs. “You have to work at understanding what your clients need, instead of presuming you know,” Joncas says. “You have to ask them.”

Look for feedback

A good place to start is with a customer satisfaction survey in which you ask customers to provide feedback on your products and customer service. You can also use social media and other free or low-cost online tools to validate your ideas for new products and services.

But Joncas cautions you have to work to “decode” customer comments to find out what they really want. This is because they’re frequently unclear about their real needs or desires.

Simoneau says her goal is to ensure the company is ambitious, forward looking and customer focused.

“We have a long-term vision for the business,” Simoneau says. “Innovation is how we achieve growth and continuity. And innovation is all about satisfying client needs.”