No One to Blame: The Perfect Crime
'Almost every company is set up for the convenience of the people who work at it, and not for the convenience of the customers,' said John Brandt, publisher of Chief Executive magazine in an interview to CRMDaily. Sad, but true. While we all try to satisfy our customers (I'll give us as much as that!), we tend to naturally gravitate towards what we know best; and we all know a whole lot more about what's best for us than about what's best for our customers.
One opportunity to turn this situation around and satisfy customer needs is during new product introduction. With the mindset of being customer-driven, you start with market research, and you actually ask your prospects and customers what they would like to see in the new product. You even have a product manager who writes detailed requirements. Looks like you're going to get it right this time! But can you really defy the law of gravity?
Now close your eyes and fast forward 24 months. Your new product has just been released (6 months later than expected; for some odd reason it seems like these numbers never change). The product gets some decent press coverage and reviews, but customer reaction is lukewarm. The product is not bad, but it's not great either.
The CEO invites the Product Manager and VP Engineering to discuss the product release. While avoiding eye contact, they each mutter their version of 'the state of the product.' The VP Engineering has an easy answer: 'This is just version 1.0, what do you expect?' The Product Manager has a different line: 'The product is not what we asked for', he says, 'if it were, customers would be happier, but engineering did not deliver what we asked for'. 'But you did write requirements?' asks the surprised CEO. 'Yes, and we developed according to the requirements', jumps in the VP Engineering. Two hours later, the meeting is still on. What happened, the CEO wonders? Where did we go wrong, after all the market research and the elaborate product requirement process?
The company had a perfect process to get market-driven requirements to development. But it was a process built for the convenience of the people who work at it, not for the convenience of the customers. With each function of the organization being able to claim that it did its part of the process, there is no one to blame for the product failure. The perfect alibi. The perfect crime.
So what can you do to prevent the perfect crime?
- Clearly define product goals. What will it do for the company? What value will it deliver to the customer? It is important to get these in writing and get everybody signed on them early in the process. When I say everybody I mean everybody, from the engineers to the CEO. Once agreed upon, these goals serve as the measuring stick for every product decision and evaluation. To make sure they do, get them down to no more than ten bullet points, and make them visible everywhere: they should be hanging in each cubical, they should be the first page of every product document, and they should be on the first slide of every product presentation from here on.
- Put ONE person in charge. Presented in the most brutal language, someone should be fired if the product fails to meet the set goals. Since you cannot fire too many people, you need one person to bear the consequences... Macabre humor aside, you do need someone who cannot have an alibi. This Chief Product Officer must have the ultimate responsibility for delivering on the product goals and the ultimate authority over every product decision. Sounds extreme? Maybe, but a new product is extremely important, and extreme situations call for extreme measures.
- Conduct frequent product reviews. Engineers tend to build products from the inside out. The inside is important, since you want a product with solid foundations. For your customers, though, this is something they take for granted. What is important to them is how they work with the product, how the product works for them. That's why you want to see mockups, prototypes, anything that will give you idea how the final product will look like early on in the process. These will require some extra work from your engineers, so make sure to build them into the product release schedule.
- Get customers involved early and often. Get potential users to serve as your Product Review Board. You want to have 20-30 users on board, since not all of them will be available at all times. You can easily recruit them as you conduct your market research--customers like to be heard! Don't be afraid to show them early prototypes; this is when their feedback can make the biggest difference. To make the most out of this precious resource, use it frequently and make it formal. Establishing regular meetings (in person or over the web) will force you to keep showing them new stuff--nothing better to keep you honest and get a step closer to a process that actually serves the customer!
Taking some of these measures will not be enough to stop the crime. Doing them all will get you closer. If nothing else, you'll know who committed it.
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