20 Jun

Weed Your Customer Garden

DandylionA few weeks ago, my neighbor Sophie cornered me while I was taking out the garbage.

“Dandelions are pretty bad this year, huh?” she said, nodding pointedly at the yellow heads littering my front lawn.

“Umm… yeah… really bad,” I stammered back.

This is the part where I explain that Sophie’s lawn looks like a lush green carpet. You know, the kind you see pictured on a big box of grass seed at the hardware store.

Our lawn, in embarrassingly striking contrast, has more, how shall I put this, “biodiversity”.

After a few years living in suburbia, I have come to learn that your merits as a human being are highly correlated with the quality of your lawn. Personally, my view is that dandelions are kind of pretty and lawns are a silly way to communicate your status to the world. So I haven’t really paid much attention to ours.

Plus, having a health crop of dandelions allows me to indulge in the fantasy that I will one day make healthy dandelion green salads and dandelion wine.

Until that happy day arrives, however, and not wanting the neighbors coming after me with pitchforks and torches, I decided to suck it up this year and put in the yard work required.

You’ll be happy to learn that in the midst of my weeding, watering, top-seeding, and compost-spreading, I had many hours (many, many hours) with which to reflect on the similarities between lawn care and customer experience.

When you take care, people notice

While out there with my weed-puller, I had many neighbors pass by and strike up a sympathetic conversation about the perils of weed management. As they saw me there, day after day in the early morning and evening, they would comment on my progress and cheer me on. “You’re winning the battle!” They would enthuse. (I wasn’t.)

The same is true when you take care of your customers: People notice. You become known as an organization that listens and pays attention.

If you don’t deal with the root problem, it will only get worse

In previous years, I never bothered to pull up the weeds by their roots. I just mowed them down (pathetic, I know) or sent my kids out to snap the flower heads off the dandelions. The results were predictable. Not only did the problem not go away, the weeds multiplied and spread. Soon my entire lawn was overtaken.

The same holds true with customer dissatisfaction. If you only address the symptoms after they occur, you may pretty things up for a day or two. But these types of band-aid fixes don’t address the root cause. Soon – very soon – the problem will grow and spread.

To have a nice lawn, you need to create the base conditions for excellence

Pulling up weeds is all very nice, but if you’re looking for lasting impact, you’ll also need certain fundamentals in place. That means nurturing and taking care of your soil – by aerating, fertilizing, watering and applying compost.

With customer experience, it’s likewise fine to do nice things like running conferences or offering promotions and giveaways. But here too, if you don’t take care of the fundamentals – gathering and acting upon customer feedback – you’ll forever be putting out fires, spinning your wheels and making little progress.

Consistency matters

In the land of top-seeding, the mantra (so I’m told) is “If they dry, they die”. That means you need to keep the lawn moist, every day, for 14-28 days. This requires consistent dedication. Even a single missed day in the hot sun can lead to dried out seeds, forcing you to start over.

Your customers are no different. Those big events – customer appreciation conferences, user group panels, etc. – are vital. But unless you keep those relationships wet, I mean nurtured, you’ll find yourself forced to start over too.

Keep these simple but powerful, customer experience concepts in mind as you plan your time, staffing and budgets. As with lawn care, there’s a lot going on out of sight and beneath the surface. A little extra attention now will save you effort, money and the disapproving eye of neighbors in the future!

Photo Credit: Flickr: https://flic.kr/p/ahCuht

05 Jun

3 Big Ideas For B2B Product People: Jeff Stanier – Adobe Systems

Jeff StanierMeet the one and only Jeff Stanier. In case you aren’t lucky enough to have crossed paths with him, Jeff is Director of Product Management over two Adobe Systems products: Adobe Experience Manager Forms and Adobe Connect.

With a job that hinges on understanding his customers at a deep level, Jeff — and Adobe’s — success relies on customer insights. But not all customer feedback is created equal. Read on for Jeff’s thoughts

  1. Don’t listen to every customer.

If you work in B2B — or any industry, for that matter — you know that listening to your customers is the only way to create a product that truly delights and meets their needs. But, there’s a trap many fall into when they start a Voice of Customer program.

Customers have a tendency to voice what’s on their mind that very moment. And while it’s true that many times this feedback can represent your customer base as a whole, it might also simply reflect a singular need or desire that isn’t shared by most. If you rush headlong down every one of these rabbit holes, you’ll quickly find yourself resource-strapped and without direction.

Luckily, there’s an answer — focus on the data points, or customer stories, that you see pop up again and again. At Adobe, one of the ways we find best to identify this big-picture, directional feedback, is to host a “Customer Advisory Board” several times each year. At these laid-back conferences, customers talk and we listen — all the while keeping track of overall themes that help us prioritize our roadmap.

       2. Focus on listening, not selling.

At our Customer Advisory Board sessions, we invite about ten senior-level managers who use our products. As they talk about their experiences and sometimes, struggles,

I’m always tempted to put on my sales hat and explain how great our products are.

After all, we put countless hours of hard work into developing them.

But, I’ve found that the most meaningful insights come from biting my tongue and simply listening. Instead of jumping in to show a customer how they could use our product better, we observe their current struggle and think about what we could change that would have eliminated the roadblock in the first place.

The customer stories we hear at these sessions are invaluable — we record the most representative ones, share them with our team, and use this feedback to influence the direction of our development. Designing for a user gets easier when you can picture the real person you’re helping on the other end.

       3. Think about how you can create radical changes for your customers.

At Adobe, I oversee the product development of Adobe Experience Forms, a digital documents and forms platform. If you’ve ever filled out a form online (and I’m willing to bet you have!) it’s very possible you’ve used our software.

At first glance, handling forms for a business doesn’t seem like something that could be radically improved. After all, it can be boring stuff. But after spending time exploring the needs of our customers, we were able to help in some pretty transformative ways. From using machine learning to digitize paper forms in ever more efficient ways, to rationalizing redundancies in their forms (in some cases reducing forms needed by 80%!), we’ve discovered opportunities for incredible upgrades in our customers’ daily experience.

If you listen deeply to your customers, and are able to sort out the underlying themes from the clutter, you can do the same for your business and products.

 

Impressive stuff, Jeff! As a final question I asked, “What keeps you up at night?”

I loved his answer: “I’m always thinking about how the way we interact with systems is changing. With products like Alexa or Google Home, the Internet of Things will change our lives. Who knows — it may even affect how we fill out forms!”

19 May

Lessons From The Motherland

00069_veraLadaKids

My parents shortly before escaping communist Czechoslovakia

My parents had three children under the age of four when they escaped communist Czechoslovakia over 40 years ago.  They somehow managed to get a three-day visa to “visit” Austria, so they packed what would be considered reasonable for a three-day trip and never came back.

Needless to say, it’s been a long three days.

Many of their siblings also escaped to various countries: Austria, Germany, Canada. Others never left.

And so last week, we journeyed back in the other direction.  My entire extended family gathered for a reunion, bringing together the Canadian, German, Austrian, and Czech branches of the family for the first time ever.

I had grown up with stories of what it was like to be a refugee, navigating a  bewildering new language and culture.  I knew how hard my parents had to work in order to provide an education for their kids so that we could have a brighter future.

But last week was my first time hearing stories of what it was like to stay.  Because while my parents escaped to a better life, their siblings felt obligated to remain and take care of aging parents.  “Well, SOMEONE had to stay”, they said.

Not only that, the communist regime made them pay a price for having relatives who fled.  Those left behind were only allowed to have menial jobs and their kids were refused a higher education … which meant the next generation was left with these same jobs too.

Frankly, I had never given much thought to the experience of my relatives in the mother country.  I had only ever heard one narrative.  One set of experiences.  

But hearing these stories for the first time last week gave me an understanding of how the actions of one person affected others in our interdependent web of relationships and lives.

Guess what … it’s often the same where enterprise software is concerned. Here too, we tend to listen to only one set of experiences. Usually, it’s the experiences of whomever is signing the checks.

Many points of view
Enterprise software usually has multiple sets of users.

For example, with an expense reporting system, there might be…

… a CFO and department heads who want better visibility into how their company is spending money.

… an IT manager who can greenlight the technical feasibility of a project.

… the people who actually use the system, day in and day out.

But guess whose voice is most often heard?  If you said the CFO and department heads (who write the checks) and the IT manager (who needs to make it all work), you are correct!

Left behind are those who do the actual work. Nobody listens to their stories, leaving them to make the best of systems and technology that were designed and/or approved by people far away from the day-to-day, hands-on operation.

At the risk of hyperbole, we might think of them as your company’s “forgotten cousins,” left behind and standing in breadlines.

With that in mind, here is your homework for next week:

Have a conversation with someone who actually uses what you make.  If you build technology that is used by nurses, talk to nurses, not just the hospital administrators.

Watch how they use the technology. Is it smooth and intuitive or have they developed workarounds?  Does it make their lives easier, or do they simply put up with what’s been given to them? Ask a lot of “Why questions” [link to previous article]. Listen. Hear their story.

Along the way, be gently resolute with the decision makers – the ones you already talk to – and insist on meeting with their team members who are being asked to use your system.

Will you encounter resistance when you try to do this? Most definitely. But persist. I guarantee that you will end up with a better product.  Which, after all, was the reason you began your journey in the first place.

 

07 May

3 Big Ideas for B2B Product People: Mairi Miller from Nanometrics

MairiMillerAs Head of Corporate Marketing at Nanometrics, Mairi’s done some pretty interesting stuff when it comes to understanding her customers.  Beginning with the creation of a “Customer Experience Taskforce,” she found ways to gather deep insights about the difficulties her customers — mostly scientists measuring shifts in the earth — face daily. From there, she focused on how Nanometrics could improve their experience.

Here’s what she had to say:

  1. Even smart customers appreciate user friendly products
    We first formed the Customer Experience Taskforce because we felt distanced from our customers — we were designing products for people that we hardly knew. We decided to do a bunch of in-person interviews to get to know them better, and the results were astounding.

    One interview stands out in particular: We talked to a group of scientists that had just returned from the South Pole. These folks had had a less-than-stellar experience with our equipment, but not for the reason we expected!

    The equipment itself worked perfectly. The pain point was in actually deploying the equipment and setting it up. We’d assumed that these scientists, as smart as they were, would have the same technical know-how that a group of engineers would. Not so — they were experts in reading the data, not in how our tools worked.

    From these interviews, we realized there was a large gap in our offering when it came to giving scientists a user-friendly experience. We also uncovered a brand new opportunity for expanding our business by offering installation services and engineering expertise.

  2. To influence change, focus on the preexisting pain points within your own company.

    As a marketer, it became obvious to me that we could learn a lot from an in-depth, intentional study of our customer base. But part of the struggle was convincing everyone else internally — engineers and C-suite alike — that the project would be worthwhile.

    Eventually, we found that we could make our case for forming the Customer Experience Taskforce most effectively by framing it in terms of a pain point the company was already experiencing. We decided to focus on a somewhat recently released product that was underperforming, and aimed our pitch to our executive staff around getting customer feedback in order to improve sales.

    The response was fantastic. Instead of a resource-sucking side project, the taskforce was now directly in line with an existing company initiative.

  3. Data is only meaningful when aggregated; and presentation style matters.

    When you interview people, especially scientists, you end up gathering a ton of feedback. I mean, a ton. And it’s messy, too — not all of it will fit nicely into buckets, and aggregating it into something useful can be tricky.

    As we began collecting data, we started to get very excited about what we were finding. But, we had to wait to share it with the team — we knew that sharing the raw data would be overwhelming and potentially misleading to others that weren’t looking at all the findings at once.

    Despite the eagerness of others in the company, we decided to keep our findings confidential until we could present them all at once. I’m glad we did. We were able to curate the most powerful stories and the most impactful feedback, and deliver it all in one cohesive presentation that contributed to repositioning our company from a product manufacturer to one that offers services, too.

 

Powerful stuff! (And we’re talking about earthquakes here, so the bar is high!) I had one more question for Mairi, of course: “Dr. Strange or Dr. Who?”

I loved Mairi’s answer: “I never saw Dr. Strange, but Dr. Who creeped me out as a kid! Now, Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, those are my favorites!”

Fair enough! See you next month.

 

10 Apr

3 Big Ideas For B2B Product People: Daniel Eicke

DanielEicke_cropped2

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

Stocksy_txpa0aa5126XzO100_Medium_868466

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?

493960

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.”