You have been on a quest to measure and improve the productivity of every aspect of your business. You have bought into agile development, lean product management, dev-ops, test data management, and every other meeting bingo buzzword out there. Then you happen to talk to one of your top developers and ask them a simple question: “How can we improve our business model to make more money?”. If they start to give you a technobabble report of the latest technologies – you have a serious problem on your hands! This article describes how to get your entire organization to understand your business from your customer’s perspective and not another excuse to learn a new piece of software.
We are at a crossroads in business evolution. In the 19th century, people like Henry Ford were creating entirely new industries with technologies that fundamentally changed human history and our economy forever. Advances in all forms of transportation made the world a much smaller place than it was previously. Trips that used to take weeks are now measured in hours. Advances in communications made it possible to speak to anyone in the world nearly instantly. Fast forward less than a hundred years, and we now can model the human genome or complex weather phenomena using computers approaching quantum speeds. We are now inventing solutions for problems that we were not even aware we had a few years ago.
In the process of such rapid advancement in knowledge and capability, it is hard to keep things in perspective and to understand how we can take advantage of the things we have built. In some cases, new products and services were created independently of technology – for example, The Avon company was founded in 1886. David H. McConnell created a perfume as a sample gift to get people to buy his books. It turned out the perfume was more successful than his publishing company. In other cases, technology is the key linchpin that enabled the product or service even to exist. Netflix started as a competitor to Blockbuster renting DVDs through the mail. As video streaming technologies matured, it re-aligned its business model and created a whole new entertainment category. The interesting thing is both companies are now highly dependent on technology for the current business models to succeed.
Today – it seems that EVERY new product or service has a technology angle to it, whether it makes sense or not. I recently purchased a new washer and dryer that had a built-in WIFI with its mobile app for some reason. Now every time I do the laundry, I get annoying notifications that I have left my clothes in the washer and dryer and that they will wrinkle if I don’t do something about them—kind of like living back at home with my mom. Just because something CAN be done doesn’t mean it should be done.
Time for my first made up, but probably close to the accurate, axiom: 99% of companies are not software companies like Microsoft that sell their software to others. But the majority of that 99% use software to differentiate their products or services from their competitors in the marketplace.
Companies are always under pressure to provide new products and services to their customers. Perceived change in a product drives increased interest and subsequently demand in the marketplace. Companies that drive change that increases customer value usually are more successful than those that do not. At the end of the day – if the consumer marketplace does not accept a product or service, it is a failure.
If you are a CEO, CIO, CTO or C<whatever>O of a company and you ask your tech guys how you can improve your products or services to make more money and they respond with something like “we really need to move to the latest framework of XYZ to really make significant progress!”. Take the following actions immediately:
- Take a deep cleansing breath, and thank your valued employee for their input
- Turn around and run out of the room as quickly as possible, trying not to scream or scare little children
- Find their manager
- Have a serious conversation with the said manager about exploring other employment opportunities at your competitors, because it is obvious they have no idea how to build a team that understands why you are in business.
What you have just experienced is a total disconnect from your customers – if you value the future of your company, you needed to make some severe changes YESTERDAY!
Immediate Action Plan
After you get talked down off the ledge you were about to jump from and collected your thoughts, you need to come up with a plan that can be implemented quickly, efficiently, and with as little bloodshed as possible. You need to make sure that EVERYONE in your organization understands why you are in business and what your customers truly value their relationship with your company. These steps are pretty similar to those that people follow when they are in a 12 step recovery program for addiction of some sort. In your case – it is technology.
Step 1: Admit you are powerless in your addiction
Technology is a powerful drug. It promises great wealth and power. But if you become too focused on technology for technology’s sake, you run the risk of forgetting why you are interested in it in the first place – trying to build stronger relationships with your customers.
Does the world need a WIFI enabled washer and dryer to remind you that your clothes will wrinkle if you leave them in the dryer for a week? Personally, I would prefer to go back to the reliability of my old nondigital washer and dryer that lasted for nearly 20 years before I could no longer get parts for it. Since that set died – I have had 3 other fancy sets of machines with digital controls that broke down right after the warranty expired and cost several hundred dollars each time to fix. I am starting a “dead pool” on my current set for sometime in 2025 the month after my high priced extended warranty runs out for this something expensive to break.
Step 2: Make a list of the customers you have wronged and become willing to make amends to them
This step requires first accepting that the products or services that you have been creating and selling to your customers did not fulfill your customer’s needs. They may not have told you directly, but they probably gave you some indication of their displeasure if you went back and looked closely enough. Have your sales been declining over the past few periods? Have you paid attention to the product reviews your company has received online from your customers? Have you reviewed the issues from your customer support organization? Happy customers rarely provide positive feedback at the same rate as unhappy customers provide negative feedback.
Take the time to understand what your customers DISLIKE about your products and services. If all you look at are the positive reviews – you are missing your chance to improve. Actively seek out your biggest detractors and listen to what they have to say. Product Managers and Engineers need to understand how their decisions directly affect the customer’s satisfaction with your company. Everyone needs the raw, unfiltered view from the customer, no matter how hard it is to hear. This can be a painful process, but it is an essential step in recovering from your addiction to technology.
Step 3: Review your shortcomings and change your behavior
This is the most important step in the process. BE WILLING TO MAKE CHANGES TO IMPROVE!! One of the key tenets of Lean Manufacturing is to learn from your mistakes and don’t double down and keep trying to make bad decisions worse. Address the root cause of the problem and FIX IT once and for all. Drag the Product Managers and Engineers into a room and force them to address customer issues. Continuing to create poorly received products and services is a sure-fire way to save so much money that the company goes out of business.
Every person on the team MUST understand WHY they are doing their job. For a software developer, writing code should only be done when they understand how it will benefit the end consumer of their efforts. If they design data models and user interfaces to make it easier to write code to enter data into a normalized database, but the user needs a help manual to understand how to use the software – you have failed in your product design and should take another look at your approach. If you aren’t focused on solving your customer’s problems, someone else will.
Don’t let technology get in the way of engaging with your customers
Unless you are a company that sells technology to developers as a primary part of your business, you MUST ensure that everyone in your organization is as passionate about your customers as you are. The decisions that a software development team makes can ultimately reflect on how your company views and understands your customers.