How Customer Interactions Guide Innovation at Toolmaker Snap-on

By Steven Melendez |  December 14, 2015

Snap-on, the publicly-traded toolmaker based in Kenosha, Wisc., has 11,500 employees around the world. But the $3.5 billion company, which sells its products predominantly through franchisees, is increasingly looking to customers to help guide its innovation efforts.

Case in point: the company’s EPIQ line of high-end professional toolchests, below.

“This was a ground-up design really driven by customer input, not by what we wanted to do, but really driven by what customers wanted us to do,” says Bennett Brenton, the company’s chief innovation officer.

Input from Snap-on’s customers shaped everything from the configuration of the toolboxes’ drawers to the inclusion of particular features, like powered compartments for storing and charging laptops and tools.

“We checked in with customers all along the way,” says Brenton, who spoke last week at the Chief Innovation Officer Summit in New York. “We had them evaluate the prototypes and give us feedback.”

That’s typical for product development at Snap-on, where Brenton says his innovation team of six spends more days out of the office, talking to customers and the company’s scattered product teams, than they do in it. They talk to the technicians who use Snap-on’s tools to work on cars, planes, farm equipment and other machinery, and shadow them at work to find out how their current equipment is working and what opportunities exist for new products.

“We’re watching somebody work on a specific vehicle type, or we’re watching them do something like align a vehicle or change a tire or pull engines out,” says Brenton. The engineers and designers working on Snap-on’s various product lines often come along too.

Two members of Brenton’s team are charged with recruiting test participants, through a mix of finding customers who meet specific requirements and random sampling. “We want to make sure we’re not just talking to fans of Snap-on,” Brenton says.

The requirements vary from project to project, and the company will sometimes even reach out to users of competing products to get their perspective on new designs and overall industry needs, Brenton says. And they work to find customers using equipment in different conditions, like auto mechanics working in hot, dry states and those in cold regions where cars encounter snow, ice and rock salt.

After the visits, they help the product development teams prioritize feedback and quickly turn customer input into concrete concepts.

“Basically we’re debriefing in the car,” says Brenton. “Over dinner, we’re coming up with ideas.”

They also share what they’ve learned with the relevant development teams throughout the company. “We have a process where once we’ve done the insight, we create summary documents, [which can sometimes include] videos,” he says.

During a typical product development cycle, Snap-on will frequently check back with customers, showing them 2-D and 3-D models and letting them test working prototypes, he says.

“There’s at least four or five times in the process where we check in with customers, some times as many as a dozen,” he says. “Things that are more new to the world, of course, take longer.”

Within the company’s 20,000-sq-ft. innovation center, opened in 2009, Brenton and his team can help prototype products, creating computer-aided design models or printing three-dimensional prototypes for quick testing, he says. The center has the typical trappings of a corporate R&D center, like a photo studio, a design lab and a room with a one-way mirror for monitoring product tests. It also has a fully functional automotive repair garage and one of the company’s signature vans — the traveling professional hardware showrooms that thousands of franchisees use to sell Snap-on products.

In one case, the innovation team was able to help test different designs for handles for striking prybars, which are essentially crowbars designed to be struck with a hammer to apply extra force. They’re often used in truck repair. The company was testing a handle that would deflect a glancing blow off to the side, away from the user’s hand. The metal bars were made off-site — “We don’t have metal forging capabilities at the innovation center,” says Brenton — but experimental handles were 3D-printed and tested at the center.

“We had a full-size semi-truck in the innovation center,” says Brenton. “We had people trying out different prybars with different handles.”

Innovation is considered a core element of the culture at Snap-on, which says it sells more than 22,000 different products worldwide. And the company is continually working to gather more input from the company’s end-users and the franchisees who sell to them.

A franchisee, for instance, might report that a customer is dealing with a new model of car that takes much longer to repair than previous models. That can lead to the development of a modified tool that speeds up the repair process. The franchisees also look forward to new merchandise that can serve as a conversation starter when they visit loyal customers, he says.

“The first thing that their customers often ask them is what’s new,” he says. So the franchisees “want to have something new on their truck.”

That desire for a constant parade of new products provides a powerful motivation for Snap-on’s innovation team. “We’re always looking for how do we do things better — how do we do things in a new way,” Brenton says.

Brenton shared the slides above on how customer interactions guide his team; the audio clip below features his thought on talking to end-users as a way to cultivate lots of ideas, which then get prototyped at various levels of detail and sophistication. (For the complete downloadable presentation, see our Resource Center.)