21 Dec

3 Big Ideas for B2B Product People: Chris van Loben Sels

A market evaluation expert and an incubator advisor at Veeva systems, Chris has built a career around finding what makes successful B2B software tick.  He began at Adobe, and was one of the early advocates championing Customer Experience as core to B2B product strategy – long before it became the buzzword it is today.

Here’s what he had to say:

1. If you creatively solve a problem internally, look to see if it could help others. 

You’d never have known it, but during the 90’s at Adobe, much of our non-core data         think helpdesk inquiries, internal communications, etc. — was cobbled together with little more than manual excel sheets and chewing gum.We knew we had a problem, and there wasn’t much out there to help us. Except for a  little Swiss company called Day Software.  Our CIO at the time, Geri Martin-Flickinger, was the one who alerted our enterprise document product team.  She pointed out that they were head-and-shoulders above the competition and that they might be a good fit for our product suite.  It was a classic case of the Remington Shaver guy: “I loved it so much, I bought the company!”

We had a hunch other companies might have similar problems, and it turns out we were right  — nearly every other company we talked to said, “Oh, you have no idea!”, when we asked if their non-core data management was a mess.  Turns out our dirty little secret was everyone else’s dirty little secret too.

The product we acquired from Day Software became the cornerstone of Adobe Experience Manager, Adobe’s enterprise content management product suite. And it all started with scratching our own itch. If you’ve found an awesome way to solve an internal issue, see if there’s opportunity to turn it into something more.

 2. Buying enterprise software is a highly emotional decision.

 Here’s the thing: consumer purchases, as emotionally charged as they may be, don’t usually have a huge impact on your life if you buy the wrong thing.

It’s a whole different story with enterprise software, though — making a big software purchase could make or break someone’s career.

That’s why brand trust is so critical with B2B software. If the VP of sales is going to take a bet on your software, it’s not a decision he or she will make lightly. People need to know that the company they’re buying from will stand behind their product. So ask, “Does that trust come across to our potential customers?”

Actually, this phenomenon played a huge part in the success of Day Software, mentioned earlier. While their product was fantastic before Adobe acquired them, they hadn’t yet built the market trust needed to win a critical mass of customers. Once they were paired with the reliability of the Adobe brand, though, things really took off.

3. New B2B products need to solve the problems that keep VPs up at night.

I had the amazing opportunity to work with Geoffrey Moore, author of Crossing the Chasm. One thing he said always stuck with me: “When evaluating if you have a good B2B product, ask yourself this: is there a VP out there saying, ‘If people actually knew how we were doing this, I’d get fired’?”

I love that line, because it’s a great criterion — if you focus on the problems VPs care about (after all, they make the purchase decisions), you’ll find it almost always is a, “gotta fix this fast” problem that has the potential to noticeably affect their bottom line.

Turns out, I’d later learn this lesson the hard way. After Adobe, I worked with a mobile CRM company called Selligy.  We made a fantastic product that was miles ahead of current practices. But it didn’t focus on a problem that the higher-ups at companies were dying to solve.

Eventually, we died the same death as the letter opener: Even though those old-fashioned letter openers work wonderfully, most people will settle for an even more convenient tool: their fingers.

 

The insights don’t get much more helpful than that! Thanks, Chris. I had to ask him one more question, though: Captain Kirk or Captain Picard?

Chris pondered for a second, but his answer was clear. “I’d have to go with Picard — I mean, there’s no way Kirk could arbitrate the Klingon succession.”

 

 

09 Dec

Ten Letters For The President

As an avid podcast listener, one of my favorites is 99 Percent Invisible.  It’s about “all the thought that goes into the things we don’t think about.”  As someone who works in B2B tech, there is nothing I love more than thinking about things people don’t think about.

A recent favorite of mine was, “Ten Letters for the President.”  This episode explains how and why President Obama reads ten letters each day from among the tens of thousands received at the White House.

It’s a pretty cool idea, and one which I think could be used in similar fashion in gathering customer insights. Here’s how:

  1. They have a process.

    The White House receives 40,000 letters and/or emails a day. Obama wants to read just ten.So, in addition to the necessary security and logistical hurdles involved, they’ve come up with an approach that provides him with a representative sample. Different ages, opinions, geographies and writing styles. And a mix of both positive and negative comments – everything.Large organizations (and even midsize ones) also receive lots of feedback: emails to product managers, conversations with sales teams, customer call center support tickets, etc. But, unlike the White House, they often lack processes for “trickling up” the everyday voice of the customer to the executive level.
  2. They are story-based.

    It would be easier – and more statistically significant – to simply distill the letters and provide the president with data regarding the themes of the day. But that would remove all the juice and much of the meaning.These letters, I think, do more to keep me in touch with whats going on around the country than just about anything else, says the president. “Some of them are funny. Some of them are angry. A lot of them are sad or frustrated about their current situation.”While the aggregating of customer feedback is very important, nothing allows you to empathize with the people you serve better than the stories they share of their experience with your product.
  3. They are responded to.Obama doesn’t respond to every letter, just some. In these he takes a personal interest, jotting down notes in the margins for use in his reply.Needless to say, the impact of a personal and direct response from the president – rather than the standard, “your call is important to us blah blah” – is tremendous.

    How about your organization? How do you think your customers would feel if they received a personal email response from the CEO of what to them is a big, faceless corporation? What kind of impression do you think that would make? (Hint: The answer to both of these questions is “fabulous!”)
  4. Their impact is shared.

    Obama uses what he learns from these letters as a jumping off point for keeping his staff in touch with the outside world.”I try to remind people – what we do here, what the Supreme Court does, what Congress does – these aren’t just abstractions. These are things that really matter in people’s lives.”Working in a B2B tech organization, it’s also easy to be shielded from the actual users of the things we design and develop. We’re down in the weeds, often stuck inside our organizational silos.

    The direct feedback we receive from the outside goes a long way in breaking through.

So what’s this all mean? Do we give up using quantitative means for aggregating and understanding customer feedback? Not at all. That’s useful and valuable.

That said, if Obama can keep a finger on the pulse of a nation of 320 million people by reading ten letters a day, isn’t there a similar opportunity in your organization?

(Comment on the this post and let me know your thoughts.  Unlike the president, I personally read – and reply to – 100% of those I receive!)

Photocredit: Gilmanshin