10 Apr

3 Big Ideas For B2B Product People: Daniel Eicke

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As Product Owner of Brand Solutions at Zalando, Daniel Eicke is responsible for building services and products for the company’s “fashion partners” – suppliers, retailers, fashion brands and others, all of whom are involved in the sale of fashion-related items.

This is separate and apart from the company’s primary focus as an international online retailer. Zalando has built a “fashion platform” and Daniel’s role is the development of products and services for a broad range of businesses across any number of functions, including delivery, payment, branding, promotion, etc.

As you might guess, he knows a lot about what it takes to build a robust platform that meets customers needs.  Here is what he told me…

  1. Create a collaborative environment

    We’ve been working with 2,000 – 3,000 brands for many years. But it was on a simple, contractual level … we didn’t have such a close relationship. As a retailer, brands worked to convince us to sell their stuff in our shop. We wanted to change the kind of relationship we had with them, and instead, focus on creating a win-win situation with our partners.

    So three years ago, we developed a new initiative with a simple slogan: “Help brands win online.” We invited 100 of our most important partners for a “strategic partner day.” The goal was to spread the message about our fashion platform and sketch some ideas in an environment where we all worked together.

    Yes, we were concerned, initially, about bringing competitors together to work on shared problems. We didn’t know what would happen. But thanks to emphasizing the problems, and making sure we were working towards mutual solutions, the participants were able to put aside the competitive elements and give us the insights we needed to develop the necessary platform and toolsThey saw it the same way we did, as part of an effort to elevate the industry as a whole.

  2. Develop solutions for a wide range of audiences.

    When we set up that first strategic partner day, we reached out to a handful of brands with the goal of connecting with them closely. We were looking for the early adopters – the people who were eager to participate and move forward.

    But we were also careful to get a mix of partners based on several criteria: small/big, consumer/commercially driven, etc. We set up intensive brainstorming sessions which gave us lots of insights regarding their plans with Zalando, as well as what they were trying to achieve more broadly. Overall, we wanted to make sure that whatever we developed was applicable to many audiences and situations.

    We also learned that it’s important to keep things fresh.  At some point (we have done this for three years now), the energy can begin to fade away with a particular group.  It took us a while to understand that with each new focus or discipline that we were building, we should bring fresh brand partners into the mix.

  3. Decouple research from the sales team.

    As a product owner, of course my team collaborates with sales. But product management is connected to technology. If you are too tied to the sales function your inputs will be sales driven.  For example, we don’t want to select a test partner based on who is the biggest – or shouting the loudest – just to satisfy a sales need.  We wanted all kinds of partners and circumstances.  Otherwise, you are in danger of building features that are only of value to your top customers.

    We have our own research team and base of contact for our partners. This allows us to ask the right questions and stay focused on the problems that need solving.

     

Thanks so much, Daniel.  I found the idea of bringing competitors together to work on shared problems to be particularly insightful!

Speaking of competitors (see what I did there?), what’s your preference, Captain Kirk or Captain Picard?

“Picard, of course. Captain Kirk is so 60s! Also the old Star Trek stories were less complex.  Next Generation had much deeper plots with social topics behind them.”

Bonus: Get a look behind the scenes of Zalando’s Techblock.

 

14 Mar

Channel your inner toddler

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When my son was a toddler, his favorite question was “Why?”  Here is a typical conversation:

Me (getting him ready to go out the door): “Let’s go buddy, put your rainboots on!”

Him:  “Why?”

Me: “Because it’s raining out.”
Him: “Why?”

Me:  “Because the water vapor in the air needed to be released.”  (Yes.  I really said that.  It’s never too early to teach them a little meteorology, right?)

Him: “Why?”

You get the idea.

And while my strategy was admittedly not that successful in getting him to put his @#^&!$ boots on, it did teach him a lot about how the world works.

In fact, what always got me about these conversations was how deeply and inevitably we ended up in the realms of topics like thermodynamics, astrophysics, or philosophy. (“Why IS it impolite to throw your peas at the wall?”)

I’ve always been pleasantly surprised by how quickly one can get down to fundamentals with a (rather annoying) series of “why” questions.

This isn’t a new idea.  It was famously part of Toyota’s management methodology breakthrough, which advocated asking “why” five times to get to the root of a particular problem.

Likewise, I have found it to be a surprisingly simple and effective way to get to the heart of customer feedback.

The challenge, after all, is in separating what customers ASK FOR (features) from what they really NEED (solutions) in achieving their goals. Asking “why” can get you the insight you need.

Consider this example conversation:

Customer: “What we really need is a button that lets me email this to myself.  Right over here – on the top left.”

If you take that comment at face value, you’ll probably walk away with a note that says, “Add an ‘email to me’ button on the top left”.  Easy peasy.

But not so fast, the bloat-ware graveyard is filled with products that were developed with this superficial approach. Better to ask a few “whys”.

Me (playing the annoying toddler):  “That’s interesting; tell me why you need that button.”

Customer: “Because I need to have a copy of this for my records.”

Now you’re thinking, “Oh, this customer must be one of the stupid ones who didn’t see the ‘save to archive’ button that does exactly that.  What a dope.”

But wait, maybe we can ask “why” again.

Me: “Hmm.  Do you keep all your records in email?”

Customer: “Well it depends.  In this case, when I save it to archive, it’s a hassle because it’s in your proprietary report format and I can’t easily get at the data.”

Me: “Why do you need to get at the data?”

Customer:  “I need to create reports for my boss, and I need the data from a couple of places in your app.  When I use your archive feature, I can never find where it gets saved, and it uses your private format, which I can’t use easily.  So right now I copy and paste what I need into a spreadsheet and create the report from there.”

Ah.  Now we’re getting to the heart of things.

So what this customer REALLY wanted wasn’t an email.  He simply wanted to create a report that wasn’t currently produced by the application.  Hmm… now who’s the dope?

Once you understand the underlying roadblock that is motivating a specific feature request, you are empowered to solve the actual problem at hand.

So, the next time you find yourself listening to a customer want, go ahead and channel your inner toddler and ask “why” a few times.  Just remember, it’s still impolite to throw your peas.

01 Mar

3 Big Ideas For B2B Product People: Ali Rizvi

Ali Rizvi has a tough job. As the Head of Product at Fonality (recently acquired by NetFortris), a leading telephony company, he’s charged with continually developing world-class communications products for enterprise-level customers.

At the heart of his experience, Ali’s found that truly understanding his customers is the best way to consistently stay ahead of his competition. He had some amazing insights during our interview, including:

  1. The best time to get B2B customer feedback is when they’re happy.

    Let’s face it — with most B2B customers, their number one desire is, “just make it work”. Naturally, this means that we most often hear from our (angry) customers when our product doesn’t.

    Be careful, though. While this negative feedback is important and should be listened to, it’s usually about an issue you’re already aware of. What product managers and engineers should really seek is positive feedback. Positive feedback tends to be more constructive, and can yield the deep insights needed to continually develop a product into something incredible.

    Mining this elusive data from your customers can be tough, though. Our trick? We get our best positive feedback from customers when they’ve just finished a great experience with us. We have an exceptional customer onboarding process, during which we carve out a time for each customer to give feedback. Some of our best new recommendations have come from happy customers during this process.

  2. Use feedback consistency to find meaningful trends.

    When you manage a product (or a bunch), deciding when to act on a particular piece of customer feedback is a delicate balance. Respond to every customer demand and you’ll find yourself running in circles; respond to too few and you’ll start losing customers to your competitors.

    How do you pick out the meaningful feedback from the momentary? For me, consistency is the driving factor. If I hear a suggestion once or twice, it’s mildly interesting. If I hear ten, twenty times, however, I know we’ve hit on a real pain point and should build around it.

    Try to be open-minded and unbiased when listening for this feedback, too. For instance, I — and many industries — have been steadily moving their products to become browser-based, cloud applications. And for a variety of good reasons.

    But, lately I’ve been hearing the same thing from our customers: they really like desktop applications! Their reason is so simple that we overlooked it, actually: desktop applications can be broken apart and modularized (you can’t do that with browser-based applications). That allows people to have just the things they use on a daily basis, always there.

  3. Increase user “stickiness” by focusing on the problem, not the product.

    At the heart of any good B2B product, you’ll find it’s really not about the product at all. Instead, a well-designed solution focuses on the problem, and realizes that solving a real pain point — no matter the method — is the only thing that matters when it comes to getting user adoption.

    Finding a way to get a critical mass of adoption from the end users at your customer companies is crucial. Even if you’re able to sell a big contract to a large employer, you won’t make much progress in the long run if the actual employees aren’t satisfied with their experience. Great user experience should be so intuitive it becomes part of someone’s daily business practice, and eventually so ingrained that the customer can’t simply “unhook” and choose one of your lower-priced competitors.

Thanks, Ali! These types of insights are tough to find, and I have no doubt our B2B readers will build great things if they’re able to follow in your footsteps.

Okay, one last question for Ali: Hitchhiker’s Guide or Lord of the Rings? Ali knew his answer instantly: Lord of the Rings! In fact, he’s been a die-hard fan since he read the entire series over a summer at age nine.

Bonus fact: He can speak Elvish a heck of a lot better than I speak Klingon!   He taught me how to say hello (“Mae govannen”) and goodbye (“Namárie”).

Thanks for reading, see you next time.  I mean, Namárie!

15 Feb

Are You Playing the Telephone Game With Your Customers?

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Every family has a collection of “favorite stories.”  You know, those things you keep retelling to each other, year after year.

One of ours involves my son. When he was in grade one, he came home from school and recounted the following history of the indigenous people of Canada:

The Native peoples fought against the Germans and won. The Native peoples were the first Franco-Ontarians. The girls spoke French and the boys spoke English, so they taught each other their languages. They started traveling the world, first the girls in kayaks then the boys in ships. They broke the law by speaking French in school. If it wasn’t for the teachers we wouldn’t have school today because the teachers fought to defend the school from the police and the kids defended with pens, erasers, and chalk. The teachers used rulers, and they won.

Yes, in case you’re wondering, we wrote it down, word for word, as he brought us up to speed (we are planning to read this at his wedding, two decades from now).

If you think something might have gotten garbled in the story somewhere along the way, you are right to be suspicious. The grain of truth in that retelling is that there was a great deal of conflict among the English, French and native people of Canada. Native languages and French were not permitted in schools and the right to speak was hard won.

Clearly, if I wanted a proper history lesson, I would be better off talking to his teacher than to my son,or better yet, an actual historian.

And yet this second hand approach, one that has more in common with a game of “telephone” than with true research, is exactly what many product developers often do: Instead of talking to customers directly, we get our information through intermediaries.

Talk to users, not just choosers

A few years ago, I was working on a product for an insurance company.  We were very engaged with the executives there (“the choosers”), who told us what they needed. But when I asked if I could speak with some of their insurance agents (“the users”), to help us understand the workflow, I was told, “Oh, well, they aren’t part of this committee.”

So I persisted. “Well, can you introduce me to a few of your agents so that I can reach out directly?”

Turned out that this wasn’t possible either, because … here comes the punchline … no one on the committee knew any agents!

Uh oh. So people who didn’t know any agents were telling a bunch of product managers what kind of products their agents should be using.  The product managers then conveyed this information to a bunch of engineers.  You see the problem.  It wouldn’t take long before we would end up with, “the kids defended the school with pens, erasers, and chalk”.

Fortunately, we were (eventually) able to talk to insurance agents, but only by independently recruiting them.  The internal bureaucracy at the customer site made it practically impossible to speak to any of the agents through official channels.

It’s a funny story, but it’s also quite common, particularly in companies with many layers of management and functional specialization. The people using a given product are often far, far away from the people with the authority to sign a $500,000 check.

What’s the solution?

Get as close as you can to the end user before building anything. It’s not always easy, and the value of doing so won’t always be immediately obvious to the “decision makers” in the organization.

But remember, those who don’t learn from grade one history are doomed to repeat it.

Photo credit: Kelly Knox https://www.stocksy.com/493960

01 Feb

3 Big Ideas for B2B Product People: Oleg Mysyk

In most organizations, the people using the technology, buying the technology and developing the technology, don’t tend to communicate frequently (if at all). At times, it feels like an extended game of “telephone,” with the essential elements of the conversation getting garbled along the way.

I sat down with Oleg Mysyk, a Product Manager and leader in application development at Nokia, to gain understanding of how direct observation can overcome these challenges.

Here’s what he told me:

  1. Ask for stories rather than requirements.When talking with customers about their needs, it’s tempting to just ask them for a wish-list — what features would they like most?This approach is sometimes effective, but it has an ugly downside: What happens when a customer’s requests don’t align with your capabilities or roadmap? Now, not only are your customer’s needs unmet, they feel ignored, too.

    Instead, let your customer tell you stories. Ask them to talk about the job they do and the obstacles they frequently face. When you take these stories back to your team, you can put yourselves in problem-solving mode and work on solutions from the customer’s point of view.

  2. Observing your customers in person is crucial to understanding their needs.
    I recall one particular project I had worked closely with for a year, and I was quite happy with it. As far as I could tell, it fit our customers’ needs like a glove. I then did something a bit unorthodox: I took a three week “shadowing tour” to observe some of our actual users. Not to make a sale, not to train them, but simply to watch. The results were both astonishing and painful. On one hand, I gained a whole new understanding of who used our software. On the other; I realized many of our assumptions were wildly off.In many cases, the insights gained from this “fly on the wall” approach were simple yet powerful. For instance, our software was designed for use by a single user. After a week of observation, though, we realized our mistake — many different people were using the same piece of software, and information was constantly changing hands. Seeing this, we adjusted our assumptions about the customer use cases and added functionality to ease transitions between a variety of users.
  3.  Outsourcing customer observation can obscure the longer term vision
    Doing the in-person shadowing described above can be incredibly valuable, but it’s not easy. Not only is it time-consuming and a scheduling nightmare, the travel costs of visiting many clients can make it downright expensive.At one point, we tried to outsource this shadowing within our own company and asked our regional sales teams to do the observation days instead. As it turned out, big mistake. The reports we got from the sales teams, as you might expect, were entirely focused around short-term insights needed to close sales – not the farther vision needed to develop tech that stands the test of time.Whenever possible, I now try to do customer observation directly. It may be painstaking and expensive, but I’ve found the insights we gather are always more than worth our time.

Thanks, Oleg! After hearing what you shared, it’s hard to imagine going about technology design any other way.

Of course, there was one more question I had for Oleg: “Star Trek or Star Wars?” “That one’s easy,” Oleg told me. “I watched Star Trek all the time at university — that’s my pick!”

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

29 Nov

3 Big Ideas 4 B2B Product People

Fabien Tiburce, Founder and CEO, Compliantia

Fabien Tiburce is the Founder and CEO of Compliantia, a cloud based B2B retail audit software. If you’ve recently walked into a 7-11 or a UPS Store, you can thank Compliantia for helping to keep your local franchisees up to snuff with the corporate standards.

As Fabien explains, “We help large, multi-unit, franchise-based retailers uphold standards for their franchisees. Standards for service, health and safety, security and more.”

So I asked him what he’d learned in the seven years he’s been running the business. Here’s what he said:

1) Educate first.

One of our “A-ha” moments came after launch. I had been promoting the business based on, “Buy us because we are great and do these things better.” Our blog was little more than a sales pitch.

A friend said, “You’re pushing things down the throats of readers.” So we switched to an entirely educational approach and began blogging about best practices, how to address problems, how to uncover pain points. We tried to walk in our customers’ shoes. Today, even our free demos don’t involve selling anything.

You need to plant seeds. Be selfless. You give and give and one day people want to know more. That’s when they call and that’s when they buy.

2) In product development, look for commonalities.

It’s easy to just react to every bit of customer input you get; there’s a temptation to build in everything that’s ever requested. But you can’t be all things to all people or else you’ll never fit into any one market or provide a valuable solution.

So we look for patterns. We try to find the “lowest common denominator” in terms of what people want and what’s really needed. We also avoid customization for one or two big clients which may satisfy them, but take your product development off course in the process. (Thanks to Jason Fried of Basecamp for that insight!)

3) Act on feedback.

Customers have been trained to not report bugs. First, because they assume that they – not the software – are the cause of problems. And second, because they’ve learned that companies don’t usually respond to problem reports anyway, so why bother?

What we’ve found though – and this is so simple it’s amazing – is that the best way to keep getting feedback, is to act on it. That teaches people to keep doing it. At Compliantia, our philosophy is, “Every door is always open.” Anyone in the company with a telephone or email must listen, interact, respond and communicate with other team members.

It’s a cultural thing. It’s low tech and not expensive. And it doesn’t take special initiatives. But we do it consistently. We listen and act.

Thank you, Fabien! Great stuff.

Of course, my last question to Fabien was the toughest: Star Trek, or Star Wars? Turns out he’s a Star Wars guy. “That’s so hard, but I’m going to go with Star Wars. Jedis and light sabers, you can’t go wrong with that!”

09 Nov

Is There Lipstick On Your Pig?

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My daughter, Rachel, is probably the only 12 year-old in the country who knows who Carol Burnett is. 

This is because I believe in properly educating our children, and that means exposing them to the joys of the Muppet Show.  In fact, we own The Complete Muppets, a five-season DVD set that my husband bought for me at ComiCon and that our entire family watches together.

The truth is, the Muppets have always felt like living, breathing characters to me.  It’s easy to forget that they are just pieces of cloth sitting on top of a puppeteer’s arm.

But when I saw one of the guests totally lose it during a romantic number with Miss Piggy, I realized how bizarre it must be to softly caress a stuffed pig while a man stands beneath it sighing and cooing “her” love in a high-pitched piggy voice.

Of course, it takes a ton of work and skill to give the Muppets the feel of real life characters. Jim Henson describes how it took his crew an entire day to film a single, two-minute musical Viking number.

And that’s why The Muppet Show is so hard to replicate. It requires so much more than just the puppets themselves. You need dozens of professionals who are skilled in set design, music, acting, writing and much, much more.

The viewing audience, of course, only sees the end result – singing, dancing Muppets. But there’s much more going on off screen – before, during and after the performance.

It’s the same with software and the quest to provide a great customer experience: It requires much more than just a pretty interface.

Consider this example: For the past decade, WorkDay Systems has been disrupting the boring old world of Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) and Human Resources software. In a world overflowing with unwieldy, hard to use and maintain enterprise systems, WorkDay has been a breath of fresh air.

Do they provide a beautiful interface?  Absolutely.  But that’s just the “Muppet” part.

As a sales manager for WorkDay recently explained to me, “Our competitors try to copy our user interface, but that’s just the surface stuff.  What’s harder to copy is our underlying infrastructure.  What they don’t realize is that a pretty UI built on top of an old and inflexible system will still give your customers a clunky experience.”

WorkDay is eating away at its competitors’ market share by providing a better user experience AND making it easier on the backend for system administrators to manage.

And that’s just one example. Time after time, tech companies look at a successful competitor and assume they can replicate that success by simply copying the other company’s look and feel.  What they don’t seem to realize is that greatness begins beneath the surface and behind the scenes.

So try this.

Begin by considering the workflows that need to be accomplished: Scanning receipts for expense reports; filling in weekly time sheets; tracking overtime; etc.  Think about how people want to do this, not how the system forces them to.  Then consider the overall life cycle of your product: what do people need to do to install, maintain, and upgrade it?

Only then does it make sense to focus on the interface. Because no matter how hard you try, you can’t put lipstick on a pig.

 

Photo credit: Volodymyr Tverdokhlib

12 Oct

Ah yes. One of your earth emotions.

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“Irritating?  Ah yes, one of your earth emotions…”  mused Spock when Captain Kirk accused him of playing an “irritating” game of chess.

However, despite Spock’s detachment from feelings, he doesn’t entirely live up to his anti-emotion rhetoric.  He even allowed himself an enthusiastic shoulder grip and smile  when he discovered that he hadn’t in fact killed his Captain in hand to hand combat. (bonus points if you can name the episode)

Those of us that live in the B2B technology world tend to think of it as being an intensely rational environment.  Purchasing decisions are based on a reasoned analysis of the features, how it integrates into the existing technology stack, how the product roadmap aligns with the internal infrastructure roadmap and so on.  Complex stuff, decided on rationally by very smart people.

And yet, when you actually sit down and talk with the people who make these decisions, and who are responsible for making these systems run, their words are charged with emotion.

Take for example this system administrator discussing a system upgrade: “The stress on my team was unbelievable.  I am never putting us through that again.”  

He felt eviscerated because while he was performing a version upgrade of one of his enterprise systems, he had critical processes that went down for hours at a time.  He and his team had to field angry emails and calls from over 10,000 employees.

Needless to say, he wasn’t really happy with his vendor during that upgrade cycle.

Or this lawyer describing a very useful feature in an electronic documents processing application:  “When I show my lawyer colleagues how to do this, their jaws drop.  They are totally blown away.”

Or this comment discussing common user configurations that need to be done manually:  “I spend hours every week doing this over and over again.  It gets really annoying.  It should take only a few minutes.

On one level, you can look at those comments and notice that they are discussing features.   But that’s only the surface.

What always strikes me is that the way they talk about those features is in the language of emotions.  If you met these people in a social setting, you would perceive them as quite nerdy.  They might even speak Klingon (or at least Esperanto).  But even among the geekiest of the geeks, emotions still play a prominent role in the way they interact with their world.

Emotions are rarely discussed or even acknowledged in the context of B2B technology, which is strange, considering how high-stakes these deals usually are.  

Someone buying a new CRM system for their organization could lose their job if they choose a vendor that can’t deliver.  Or they might have to face an endless stream of angry employees who can’t figure out how to use the expense reporting system they approved, or some of their customers’ livelihoods might be in jeopardy if their data integrity was compromised.

The Canadian government recently rolled out a flawed payroll system which has resulted in over 80,000 people not being paid properly, or at all.  As a result, government employees are losing their homes, or are not able to afford critical medication. Every night,  there are thousands of people that are lying awake, stressed out and losing sleep because of this payroll system.

On the surface, B2B products seem cold and unemotional.  When I say “payroll management system”, the primary emotion it triggers is boredom.  Did your eyes glaze over just now?

We tend to think of even running shoe purchasing decisions as being more imbued with emotion (“Just Do It!”), but really,  what’s the worst that will happen if you buy the wrong shoe?  On the other hand, when a payroll system grinds to a halt, it can have life-changing reverberations for thousands.

Here’s the bottom line:  If you want to provide excellent customer experiences, you have to acknowledge that emotions are what defines that experience.   

Just because your buyers are technical and smart, it doesn’t mean that emotions aren’t part of the picture.

Photo credit: JD Hancock