On Being Customer Connected
As new features are chosen and developed for a software application, it is important to be connected to your customers. Often these initiatives are called “Voice of the Customer” programs. This starts with doing the initial market research, talking to actual active users of your products, to find out what their pain points are, as well as what functionality they are missing to do their jobs more effectively, or to manage their businesses more effectively. This doesn’t just mean talking to existing customers but talking to potential customers, whether these are customers or a competing application, customers of applications either up market or down market from you, or just plain non-consumers (no current application).
This is really just the first step, gathering potential requirements. To really stay customer connected, you need to keep the customers involved in every step of the software development process. When you choose the requirements, run the list by your customers to ensure you have prioritised them correctly. When you do the initial designs, run it by the customers to ensure you are on the rights track. Have frequent check backs with real customers throughout the Software Development Lifecycle to ensure you are staying on the right track and not straying from the customer’s true business needs. This takes a fair bit of work. One is to prepare presentations or documentation in a form customers can understand (rather than programmerese) and the other is to find and stay in touch with a good sampling of customers who are willing to participate.
Here in the ERP space we also get lots of help from consultants, accountants, resellers; the whole business partner community really. This is really helpful and their are people with 20+ years of experience in ERP applications here to draw on their experience. But we have to be careful that we do go back to real customers as well for ultimate validation.
We also have to watch the current competitive landscape, what are all our competitors doing. What are they learning from their customers. How will they sell against us, if we take one route versus another. What is on their roadmap and how will we sell against that. All this needs to be factored in. But whatever is chosen needs to be validated with customers in the end.
As software applications, we also need to take into account trends in the software industry. How do we fit in with new trends like Social Networking? A lot of time this lead to idea-ations and requirements that will lead the customers. But ultimately we have to validate back to the real customer to ensure it will be useful. Plus there are many trends and fads that die out quite quickly. Here we need to listen to the customer to weed out what is real and what is hype.
Basically we are in a complicated competitive industry where we need to listen to input from many sources. But in a way with a good “Voice of the Customer” program, things become much simplified and direction can be set with a much stronger sense of confidence.