I Am Customer, Hear Me Roar

By Les Jickling June 11, 2007

I am strong, I am invincible, I am your customer.

If you are a product development house your customer's needs should sound the call of a lion's roar. If not, you may soon be hearing quite another sound--the ring of the creditor's call. Ignore your customer's needs at your own peril. Current economic imperatives dictate the need to be 'customer-centric' and listen to the voice of your customer. If nothing else, your competitive edge depends on it.

Recognizing this need, technology executives have issued the company edict to become more 'customer-centric', to listen to customers and build solutions that meet their needs. For in the evolution of technology companies we have all too often seen the disastrous effects of technology-driven companies. Companies that have produced a product based on 'neat', but often unnecessary, technology that developers dreamed up and then passed over to marketing to 'find a market'. More recently we've witnessed the even more daunting specter of the finance-driven company. The beast born in that unfortunate era of superfluous VC money where 'instant products' were thought to spawn from the mixing of heavy funding, dubious business plans, ill-defined markets and a great deal of alchemy. In the wake of widespread business failures we've seen a lot of angry investors asking who those mythical customers were that were supposed to buy the technology.

Perhaps due to the mistakes of the past (in some cases in spite of them) or intense pressure to develop competitive advantages in fierce markets, technology companies are now zealously looking at ways to closely listen to their customers. To become that marketing-driven company that everyone has parroted since time immemorial but never been capable of implementing. By definition, marketing implies developing products or service in response to known market demands. To market, you need know your customer's demands.

Before touting marketing-driven companies as the technology savior, it is important to remember that too much customer attention is not without its pitfalls. Geoffrey Moore, in his seminal work Crossing The Chasm, has repeatedly warned us about falling into the trap of developing custom solutions. If we are to develop products that allow us to pass into the mainstream market where the bulge of customers reside, we to need listen, not to the whims of a few vocal customers, but to the needs of a cross-section of informed users. So how does one effectively listen to customer needs? How does one rank and prioritize development resources? How does one sift through the 'white noise' of feedback to establish consistent needs across an entire market segment?

'Get On Your Bicycle, Put Your Ear To The Ground'

Over the years I've heard some pretty creative suggestions about how I might collect customer feedback. The suggestions always seem to revolve around things like 'Well just ask them, how hard could it be?' But the difficulties of this approach become more obvious when you dig down to the next level and consider the logistics, the collection methods and the sorting of data.

I remember once being told to 'Get on your bicycle, put your ear to the ground.' By 'bicycle', my boss clearly meant 'fly' all over the continental U.S. and 'ear to the ground' presumably meant take notes. In Memphis I remember visiting a large company, being given a massive dump of information, taken out for a pork dinner, plied with alcohol (to push their special requirements up the list faster) and sent off to Graceland with every variety of heartburn imaginable. Much of the rest of the trip followed in the same vein. Needless to say the system was not very efficient. When I returned home, it was no small job trying to sort and come away with actionables from the jumble of notes I had taken. This is an approach all too common with product managers. Apart from this approach being inefficient, it is next to impossible to validate what each of those companies wanted against all the other companies? needs. The obvious goal is to come up with a set of needs common to most, if not all, the customers. This would lead me to get the biggest bang for my development buck. Getting qualified, empirical data from a large number of customers about what product features or enhancements they need has always been the bane of a Product Manager's existence.

Typical Approaches to Listening to Customers

Research on customer needs is nothing new; consumer-product manufacturers have been spending hundreds of millions of dollars on customer research for years, mainly through time-intensive and costly focus groups and surveys. Unfortunately for product managers, these aren't viable alternatives as, typical in technology companies, short development cycles and limited resources are insurmountable challenges.

Customer Relationship Management (CRM) solutions have often been, mistakenly, thought of as a way to get customer information into product development. However, CRM merely provides historical data such as recency, frequency and monetary value to help predict future trends. CRM is not designed for a product manager to engage customers to gather, manage and prioritize input for product development.

The Emergence of Customer Voice Management (CVM) Software

You can imagine my delight when I heard that there might be a way out of this thicket. I first heard about Customer Voice Management (CVM) software a year ago when a fellow product manager began implementing customer input software that utilized internet technology. At the time I remember thinking it was surprising I had never heard of such software before and even more disappointing that I hadn't thought of it myself. From a product manager's standpoint I immediately understood the 'pain' it would cure and as a simple and effective solution, CVM seemed intuitive and perhaps even obvious. But hindsight is often like that. You know you've arrived when you hear people announce 'I can't believe they stole my idea!'

Unlike CRM, CVM allows a product manager to capture customer intentions, motivations and special requirements. Much like Robert Kennedy's famous quote, 'Some people look at things as they are and say why? I think of things that never were and say why not?' CVM gives your customer the voice to tell you things they would like to see as well as the things they liked or disliked about your product. Therefore, CVM provides a much needed complement to CRM solutions. Knowing the voice of the customer helps companies deliver value by developing to their customer's unique needs and giving them the tools to effectively communicate that value in language that their customers understand.

Benefits of CVM

In a nutshell, CVM software is simply a customer's pipeline into the product development cycle. It allows the customer an efficient way to take part in the development process by providing real-time feedback on much needed features, functionality and product suggestions. By allowing customers to visit a simple web page for product feedback it is possible for product managers to reduce, if not eliminate those cross-country treks where they are told to 'get on home and make the stuff work.' CVM gives product managers an efficient way to gather empirical data on customer needs. This data can then be used to help define the scope of a product, ultimately, leading to the development of a product that give customers what they need.

CVM Vendors

There are many types of companies operating under the umbrella of CVM each one catering to a slightly different niche; some more complex and costly than others. There are companies such as CustomerSat and SatMetrix that primarily focus on software to capture customer satisfaction. Product Managers in technology small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) will be interested in ProductScope Software, a company providing a cost-effective solution designed specifically for the needs of Product Management teams in these types of companies. Other firms such as BetaSphere and Informative focus on the needs of Fortune 1000 companies.

A Hero's Welcome

To Product Management the emergence of CVM software is heralded as the beginning of a new era of product development that is truly customer-centric. CVM allows the customer to finally give voice to the lion's roar they deserve.

Categories: Strategy
Les Jickling

Les Jickling

Les Jickling is a freelance technology contributor and a former product manager with a software development company. He has worked for the last 8 years in the technology sector primarily in the area of software applications, e-commerce and the Internet. He welcomes feedback at sato@axion.net.

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