04027 Can Customers Doom Your Software?

Is it possible to do such a good job catering to customer requirements that your product fails? Sometimes your company can listen to users so well that you wind up taking your product down a path that leaves it far behind the competition, and only a superlative effort would let you catch up, if you even can.

Read on for some ideas on how the act of gathering and implementing the wrong requirements can cause your product to lose its competitive edge, and what a Product Manager can do to prevent that.


Who Holds the Purse Strings?

Part of the dilemma when your customer is a business, rather than an individual consumer, is that the people who use your software are the ones you come into the most frequent contact with and the ones who feed you requirements. But the end users and system administrators are usually not the ones who make the buying decisions. You can please the end users mightily while still missing the boat with the top managers.

So the key is to clearly determine where the budget and buying power lies and include capabilities that address the critical needs of the people at that level.

Who Holds the King’s Ear?

Generally, it’s more complicated than just finding out who approves the contracts. There are end users and expert users whose opinions guide the buying decisions of those above them. There is still a high priority for requirements that may not make that much of a difference to the head of the department, or to her boss, but that prove to be the deciding factor in what the influencers recommend.

An Interesting Article

Before I wrote this topic, I had to go check that Daniel Shefer hadn’t already written it. I am pleased to say today’s article covers new ground. But there is also a great article that describes a kind of nightmare variation of what I’m talking about here. You can find it on Daniel’s site at:

  • www.shefer.net

Click the Articles button.

Take a look at the article titled Disruptive Customer Requests. I’m sure you’ll find it interesting. The site also provides a number of articles that cover issues of Product Management in great depth.

Helping With the Mundane

The problem with soliciting and developing requirements from everyday end users is that you wind up with many practical, but mundane, new capabilities which deliver small, incremental improvements. These features may appeal to people who spend all their day working in your software, but don’t help drive the major initiatives and progress that their managers have been tasked with. At best such features provide a competitive advantage by resulting in a cumulative cost-cutting effect through time savings and more efficient service.

Picture yourself giving a demo of your product to a group of prospects and relying only on these incremental improvement features. For any demo, you need a “wow” factor, something that will make people sit up and realize that the product can really do something different for them. It is critical to put in certain features whose main purpose is “demo appeal.”

(Many of these demo appeal features, while clearly being one of the main reasons your product gets selected over others, end up never being used.)

What Is a Customer, Anyway?

With software for businesses, it’s important to realize that people tend to apply a very vague notion of “customer.” What exactly is a customer, anyway? Through habit and path of least resistance, we tend to associate those users with whom we come into the most contact, through the customer hotline, training sessions, and user meetings, with the “customer.”

Actually, the customer is the company, and more specifically, the people and departments in the company who signed for and paid for your product. These same people and functions, or their successors, will make the decision to keep using your product or go with a competitor in the future.

So it becomes important to keep in mind that requirements that are focused on the customer may not exactly match requirements that meet the needs of everyday users.

Smooth Driving to a Dead End

It’s human nature to gravitate to the familiar, and it can be comfortable working with end users and user groups to define and prioritize new software requirements. As the Product Manager, users become more experienced with how the requirements and development process works at your company, you have a well-oiled machine in motion, and things get quite cozy.

It’s also easier to consider little things, requiring less effort for each one, than it is to go exploring for the next big thing, to seek out the big gaps that are missing from all competitors in the industry.

But while the well-oiled machine makes for a smooth ride, it could very well lead you, smoothly and pleasantly, to a dead end.

Mature Markets Dry Up

Some of what happens is that a market matures. As the market increases in maturity, it becomes more focused on conservative, incremental change, and software companies can count on predictable and very profitable maintenance revenue.

All that would be great if such mature, profitable markets lasted 50 years these days. But with the pace of change today, with the effect of technological change that breaks through from one sector and industry to the next, a mature market can suddenly dry up. Change, whether technological or evolution of the marketplace, can make whole sets of services and products peripheral or pointless. Like the buggy whip industry, which probably did a great job of producing top quality buggy whips long after people stopped buying new buggies.

Great Coding, Humdrum Product

It’s easy to spend great design and engineering talent on boring product ideas that stem from many small, relatively insignificant, incremental changes and additions. The improvements are discussed and voted on by a group of similarly shortsighted people focused on improving their daily tasks. That’s a real problem when their managers are setting goals that will transform the balance and nature of their work forever.

Great Ideas, Poor Execution

You can fall subject to the opposite extreme, where you hunt down and try to develop more breakthrough ideas than your development team can handle. You get a number of cool sounding capabilities that were hastily put together and which don’t have a lot of depth to them. Worse, they may be buggy.

You won’t get very far by being the idea company that can’t execute. That’s not what I’m recommending when I talk about the dangers of focusing your requirements effort on end user needs.

Becoming the little company that couldn’t is a trap particularly for startups, who can begin to believe their own marketing, which looks as impressive as the stuff coming out of the big players, but have far fewer resources to actually build the product.

Blindsided By Your Competitor

Finding yourself coasting along on a smooth ride with comfortable new features and a cozy relationship with end users can be fine. It works out okay if your competitors are not devising breakthrough capabilities. The danger comes when one of your competitors does create a breakthrough. In fact, the breakthrough may come from a company that wasn’t even on your radar screen as a competitor.

If a competitor leapfrogs your product and all your other competitors, then you’re in real trouble, and at best stand to pay dearly in lost profit until you can catch up. That’s if you can catch up.

Must It Be a Choice?

The truth is that you don’t have the happy choice of either following the call of your end users or redefining the meaning of your industry. You’ll need to keep solidifying your customer base by being highly responsive to suggestions from end users.

It’s important to implement some of the best suggestions, for customer satisfaction first, and second because if your product streamlines routine tasks, it has a real competitive advantage. Also, you can build up significant product momentum by a steady stream of incremental improvements.

But you must also focus your attention on the top level, the people who are running the departments and companies where your end users work, as well as the visionaries in the industry.

A Vision For the Future

Seek out the forward thinking individuals, and talk to analysts and top industry executives to find out what their biggest challenges are when it comes to doing the things that your product is designed to help them with.

Find the people with new and different ideas. Then, instead of sitting down with users and asking them for a list of what they need (you’ll get the little things), paint a picture of the future that is centered around some of the most solid ideas you have heard. Brainstorm with them about how a product could help meet some of the hardest challenges. Pay close attention to how executives and managers react. Pay attention to the people who play the biggest role in deciding to buy your software.

Review the vision with as many groups of people as you can, at as many levels as you can. As times goes by and you consult more people, the vision will crystallize as you see what most resonates in your message.

Challenging the Customer

Realize that your new vision, while having the potential of being a great inspiration, may require you to challenge your customers to get on board. People resist change, and breaking new ground also means a certain amount of uncertainty. But if you feel like you have come up with a product vision that can significantly improve how the market works, it’s your job to push people to do what they know they should do but don’t always want to do.

— Jacques Murphy, Product Management Challenges


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