As the software industry has developed from its infancy, companies have learned to provide very specific services around the core software product. They have gradually come to understand that these services – such as project management, implementation consulting, training, and software customization – are essential to the product’s success. Companies that have pushed the envelope have created services “wrapped around” or “bundled with” the software.
But what is needed is a further step in the understanding of services. Services do no just go with the product, they are the product, or at least a part of it. Your product is not just the software anymore, it’s the services, it’s customer care, it’s your user conference, your broadcasts to the customer base, and the business insight and tips you provide via email or phone to end users and managers.
When I bought my Ford Focus, it wasn’t only because the car was a delight in terms of design (and price). I bought the Ford company as well, along with the local dealership and its service department. Like so many others, I didn’t base my purchase on an understanding of a car as a product that ends at the car doors. The product, in fact, goes way beyond the physical car itself.
The companies – old and new, big and small, heavy industry and virtual technology – that are thriving in the marketplace are the ones who realize that the whole company is the product.
Product Managers are ideally positioned to help make this sea change in perspective come about at their company. In fact, such a change, while requiring the support of the CEO and the management team, probably can only take effect with the direct effort of Product Managers, because of their ability to get involved in the details.
Read the tips below to extend the understanding of your product by the company – and more importantly customers and prospects – beyond the limits of the software itself. Do this because in your customers’ eyes the product is no longer just an implementation headache but becomes a critical business initiative with a powerful brand image connecting users to all areas of your company.
This Vision Is a Top-Down Effort
While the incorporation of services and other components into the product depends upon the Product Manager, the success of the whole initiative depends upon buy-in and support from the CEO and the management team. We’re talking about changing the way the entire company views the business and each department’s role. It is too big for Product Managers to implement without getting steady support from the top.
Have Them Sign On the Dotted Line
You can bet that all of the software that you sell to a customer is included in the contract that they sign. This includes customizations and perhaps specific features that the customer requires. Any other service or company output that you want to have considered as an integral part of the product should also be specified in the contract. This includes, as appropriate, customer care, customer conferences, expert insight and advice, and all other services such as implementation, training, facilitated sessions, etc.
Package the various services you deliver into standard sets of services with standard content and results. This makes it possible to describe each service fully in marketing collateral and data sheets, speaking of the benefits and features for services just as you do for software.
In an earlier topic called “Tips for Delivering Consistent Services” I discuss ways to productize the content and delivery of services that accompany the software product.
Customers Care About Customer Care
Your customer care effort or support hotline is the equivalent of an auto dealership’s service center. The reputation of your service center, the many convenient features and benefits, the various choices for signaling problems and resolving them, are all a critical component of your product. They also influence a prospect’s decision to buy your product.
Usually customer care requirements are already included in contracts. But rarely are the details of your service effort explained like they’re just another integral feature of the product. Build a collateral piece covering your customer service – all aspects of it, from hotline support to advice to contract renewal and billing features.
Insight Is Worth a Lot
By virtue of the fact that your customers are working in an environment that uses software, they are constantly faced with new features, new technology, and new challenges to apply technology to important business initiatives. Their world is constantly changing. They may know their area of expertise inside and out, but they could use all the help they can get on how to use technology to enhance that area of expertise.
Still other customers are less experienced in the subject matter expertise, or lack the overall view your company has had an opportunity to develop by working with many different companies and environments using a wide array of ideas and practices. Your company is in a great position to provide perspective on best practices.
In the eyes of your customers, such knowledge is easily as valuable as the whole rest of the product put together. You can integrate this knowledge into the product you provide by developing a Business Expertise plan, just like you have a Marketing Plan or Professional Services Plan. The Business Expertise Plan can include all forms of communication – letters, emails, listservs, consulting, war stories, user experiences, case studies – that you want to supply to your customers in a structured way. And all of this is presented as an advanced feature of the product in the collateral.
It Doesn’t Just Come Out of Thin Air
Software runs on hardware. While bundling the hardware and software is a classic case of presenting an overall solution to customers, the recent boom in the software market has led software companies to forget the hardware roots of their product. Consequently, many such companies find that resellers and system integrators – the ones who put the hardware and software together into a single package – become their most effective sales channel.
So never forget the hardware, and if you can offer a complete hardware and software system, so much the better.
They’re Buying the Company
Your customers are buying not just your product, but your whole company. That includes the people who do the billing and answer the phones and put useful information on the Website. An important initiative that you can spearhead is to go to each and every function at the company and portray to the manager and employees how what they do represents a feature and a benefit of the product. This is a little like implementing a customer service mentality throughout the company, but with a bit more emphasis on exactly how each department’s services or output represent a benefit to your customers.
This initiative requires consistent and steady support from the top to back up what you are saying. This is a good initiative to ask Human Resources to implement in terms of facilitated sessions, training, and job definitions and guidelines.
When a customer signs an expensive contract with lots of profitable customization work, how many times does the Product Manager get involved in the customization part? Very rarely, if ever. That’s because the typical reaction is to see customizations as separate from the standard product. Plus there’s a sense of relief that they can be handed off to product analysts and programmers to deal with. It’s conveniently delegated away.
But I bet that your customer doesn’t give a fig about which features and benefits are standard and which are custom. To them, it’s all part of the product. If I have a stripe painted on my car, it’s as much a part of the car to me as the steering wheel. So it’s in your best interest to treat customizations as part of the product, too.
This means that the quality, content, and consistency of your customization services should be a major focus. And customizations should be productized and discussed in the collateral just like all the other features.
All In the Same Breath
It all boils down to treating all the components of the product – software, services, expertise, customer care, company communications – as a single unit that travels together and stays together. When you make a presentation about the product, you weave features and benefits together into a story that spans standard software, customizations, services, hardware configurations, customer care, the customer conference – all on the same footing. Because in the end it doesn’t much matter to a customer how a specific benefit is implemented – is it software or a service? What matters is the benefit the customer receives.
Product presentations, marketing collateral, elevator pitches, and explanations by employees. You want to make sure that all of these tie together each and every aspect of the product as needed, painting a picture of benefits and features that goes way beyond the software. In doing so, you will place your company among the ranks of those who are thriving and selling in a market that seems to want to reward the top two or three products in a given category, and let all the rest fizzle out. You want to make sure that your product is in those top three.
— Jacques Murphy, Product Management Challenges