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Developing industrial trucks with a focus on customer needs

The goal of the KION Group is to provide its customers in all segments and markets with the best possible material handling solutions offering the highest product quality. To achieve this goal, the KION development organizations, including Product Development and Product Management, work closely with the relevant Operating Units to develop innovative, industry-leading products, services and solutions based on specific regional customer needs.


Every day, many new products are launched on the market. Consumers have a variety of choices and will only pay for products that best meet their wants and needs. For companies who develop products, the old days of developing a product behind closed doors are long gone. If they want to make their products the first choice for customers, they need to develop them together with their customers. To do so, they must first listen closely to customers to understand what they really need. Having a perfect understanding of customers´ processes is becoming increasingly vital in order to find the best possible solution for a given application.

The KION Group is no exception. It is well equipped to meet the specific customer needs of a range of markets with the comprehensive product catalog provided by its brand companies Linde Material Handling, STILL, and Baoli.

Product Management: Keeping a finger on the pulse

At the KION Group, before an industrial truck is developed, the first step is to define customer requirements. This is the task of Product Management, who take the lead and act as the contact point with customers as well as with the sales and service network through a range of means such as questionnaires, customer visits, process assessments, workshop sessions, online discussions, and much more. The Product Management team tries to understand customers’ needs, what kind of worries keep them up at night, and how to go above and beyond.

The most effective way, of course, is to visit customers in person to understand their requirements. “In EMEA regions, our product managers aim to visit customers as often as possible,” says Karl Knipfelberg, Vice President Product Management Counterbalance Trucks at the KION Group. One of the goals that he and his team set is to ensure that the product portfolio is always tailored precisely to the market and the customers in question. They therefore take every possible opportunity to visit customers and always learn something new through face-to-face communication. “Our visits allow us to understand the real applications at the customers better and to know where we stand and what technology we need to anticipate for future development. This helps us to create more tailored products and balance market pull* and technology push,” explains Knipfelberg.

Visiting customers is the most effective way to understand customer requirements.

Besides customer visits, there are two other approaches that Knipfelberg and his team rely on to collect customer requirements and wants: the Customer Panel and Focus Groups. At the Customer Panel, the team invites selected customers to attend a two-day workshop where the team presents new product ideas and concepts. Customers then share opinions, based on their own experiences and expertise, about whether these ideas and concepts make sense from an external point of view. In contrast, Focus Groups bring together internal experts, primarily from the Europe-wide sales teams, to share requirements that they have collected from the market and from customers. This is a way to gather input from multiple people in order to develop new ideas.

During the current COVID-19 pandemic, however, customer visits and face-to-face events are restricted. That’s why Knipfelberg and his team have shifted interaction with customers to the virtual world. This has been a success with customers being happy to participate in the activities. They not only find it interesting to learn more about new possibilities, technologies, and trends, but they also appreciate the opportunity to provide feedback, which may then be incorporated into future product development.

Product Development: Creating added value for customers

Customer requirements collected by the Product Management team reflect the customers’ views and provide a clear picture for the Product Development team of what customers really need. Other than that, the team also collects ideas from other sources—market developments, competitor research, and findings from WITS (World Industrial Truck Statistics) are naturally taken into account. All of this information translates into new ideas for products.

Once the ideas have been collected from various sources, they are evaluated from business, technological, and user perspectives. Customer requirements, in particular, are detailed in close collaboration between the two teams using a software tool, and then used during the development processes. Criteria such as truck features, product cost, business cases, and much more are discussed and evaluated in detail to determine what the product should achieve. The Product Development team then works out the right solution to fulfill customer requirements in the best possible way.

“New development needs to create added value for our customers, as they are the ones who ultimately pay for it,” emphasizes Harald Will, Executive Vice President Product Development at KION Group. Will and his team need to find the right balance between technology push and market pull. Many truck functions can be achieved from a purely technical standpoint, but the more important question is: What features are customers willing to pay for? A highly innovative feature doesn’t necessarily sell well. Customers are only willing to pay for products that successfully solve their specific problems, while also providing a good value proposition.

As part of the overarching CTO (Chief Technology Officer) development organization, Will’s team leverages technical innovation and strives to not simply meet customer expectations, but rather exceed them. At the same time, the team considers economic criteria, as well as the use and adaption of modules and components for common platform concepts, creating synergies across Operating Units.

* The term “Market pull” refers to requirements formulated by customers and the market for product features and technology that are used to define innovation activities.