Tom Petrocelli's take on technology. Tom is the author of the book "Data Protection and Information Lifecycle Management" and a natural technology curmudgeon. This blog represents only my own views and not those of my employer, Enterprise Strategy Group. Frankly, mine are more amusing.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Whereby I Commit Heresy

It is axiomatic that when you develop a product you listen to your customers. Throughout the development process, even before product conceptualization, you are talking to customers. You get their opinions, wants, desires, and hopefully needs. Most Product Requirements include something about the “Voice of the Customer”.

Although listening to customers is a good thing, if it is adhered to too strictly it can really screw up product development. That’s right, listening to customers can mess up your products. Heresy! See, I delivered on my promise.

Here’s how customers can tank your product.

Customers don’t know always know what they need. They more likely know what they want but not always what they need. When gathering data, customers will talk to you about features and technology but not business. Take servers. We keep making faster servers whose CPUs are mostly underutilized. One of the reasons that server virtualization has taken off is because server manufacturers built in too much capacity. They did that because their customers told them too. What customers needed was better application performance. They just assumed that meant a faster processor or more memory. Talking to customers about problems and behaviors yields a better response. It’s just harder to do.

Which brings us to the next problem – customers answer the question you ask of them. Asked if you want a faster server who won’t say yes. A lot of companies don’t dig in deep to find out what they plan to do with that extra performance. If you asked what is the biggest issue they have with applications and infrastructure you will likely get a different answer. Worse yet, sales and marketing people tend to introduce features into the conversation that customers never even thought about. How many times has someone suggested a feature to a customer, had the customer said they liked it, but then the same customer wouldn't buy it. It happens all the time.

Even if you understand what someone needs, that doesn’t mean they can pay for it. Years ago, when I was a product line manager, I was told repeatedly that my product line needed SGI drivers (it was that long ago). There were lots of customers who wanted it, need it even. When we queried those same customers as to how much they were willing to pay for those drivers, we got a different answer. To have listened to the “voice of the customer” would have committed us to an expensive development, test, and service effort for something that no one would pay for.

The biggest problem is dealing with conflicting needs. Unless you have an incredibly homogenous customerbase you will not find a clear picture of what everyone needs. Instead, you will get a fragmented view based on competing needs. How do you resolve these conflicts? Who do you listen to more? How do you make room for innovation? To put it simply, you can’t be all things to all people so compromises will have to be made. That can be difficult especially if you are just chasing features.

Here is where you see the effects of big customers. Big consumers of your products tend to dictate that their needs come first. Wal-Mart is famous for this in consumer goods as are large banks for IT. The problem is that they are not all of your customers and may not be where your growth is. By catering to a few powerful customers, you risk alienating other customers and making it difficult to break into other markets. You might also spend a lot of resources on features with narrow appeal. Even worse, large institutions tend to be conservative. Given too much credence they can stall innovation in your products leading to slow death for the company.

The overwhelming problem with listening to customers is that it isn’t enough. You have to understand their business and industry. Only then will you have enough context to figure out what they really need and what they are likely to need in the future. A great product anticipates future needs instead of simply meeting current known ones.

So listen to your customers. Just not too much.

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