Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Building Customer Friendly Teams

How do you develop wonderful user experiences if your development team has contempt for your users?

OK – I admit this may be a bit strong. But bear with me for a minute.

Think about your development team – top to bottom. Do you have folks that refuse to talk to customers? Or folks that insist they know what the customer needs, even though they have never spoken to a customer?

I’ve seen this across every company I’ve worked for, and at all levels. Sometimes it was an engineer who knew that a user “would never do something that way”. Other times it was a development leader who believed it is “Product Management’s job to talk to customers.”

In either case, you, your company, and your customers lose. I’m not going to discuss you all lose – that is better left to a different post. After all, I’m writing this post under the assumption that you want to create a customer friendly team. With that, let me share some guidelines that can help you build a customer friendly development team.

Set the tone
As the leader, you set the tone that the customer is the highest priority. In practice, this means you:
  • never disparage your customers (e.g., refer to them as ‘dumb users’, etc.).
  • always include customer considerations in product decisions (e.g., this feature will make our users more efficient, happier, etc).
  • show respect for your customers in every interaction with them, even if your team members aren’t there.
Find opportunities to teach
Bring members of your team with you to visit customers, to observe end users, and to attend conferences. These are excellent environments to role model. I especially find it helpful to debrief team members on why I acted a particular way with a customer.

For example, I may agree to add a certain enhancement on behalf of a customer. I’ll share with my team member the background on why I made the commitment. For example, perhaps the request was already in the queue and will generate goodwill for a very vocal customer, at very little impact to the roadmap. Or perhaps this is a customer who provides tremendous references and has “earned” the right to get small requests periodically.

These interactions serve to teach team members that more goes into product decisions than technical decisions. This is the basis for developing future business leaders. Keep this in mind - most (all?) successful C-level people handle customers exceptionally well. Chances are they learned that skill somewhere along the way. Why not give a future CEO the chance to credit you with their success!

Expect user interaction from your team
I expect every member of my team to interact with users. That expectation drives all team behavior from hiring through annual reviews. Every one of my managers had goals associated with attending user groups or customer visits. That, in turn, set the tone for their direct reports.

As a result, team members look for opportunities to get out with customers. There are even team members who reach out to customers on their own for input during the development process. Not only does the person get great input, the customers who were asked develop greater affinity for your company and “their” product.

The investment you make in creating a customer friendly team pays dividends:
  • Increased customer loyalty (Customers tend to give you the benefit of the doubt if they know you and your team care about them and their challenges)
  • Better decisions (Who better to know how a feature can work best other than the people who do the job every day?)
  • Higher maturity teams (Technology takes place in a context – and the context is the customer environment, not the SDLC)
Now go out and find a customer to meet.

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