Getting What You Want

By Anne Zink

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If, upon reading a new product release, you have ever wondered, “Why did they come out with that?”, you’re not alone.

Recently, my company, AZTech, completed customer satisfaction studies for several clients. The number one improvement opportunity desired was better alignment between customer requirements and product functionality. Almost 80% of customers across five vendors stated they see “No connection between their business priorities and their top three vendor’s product roadmaps.”

We thought perhaps we’d somehow managed to query only dissatisfied customers, so we kept talking. The answers didn’t change. So, we started talking to vendors.

Those conversations revealed that while most vendors say they “gather customer requirements” as an element of their product development process, less than 30% feel they do an adequate job. The challenge for most is that their product development processes sit separate and apart from the rest of the organization. When there IS linkage with sales/marketing, they tend too come late in the development cycle to have significant influence.

The good news is that over 65% of technology vendors we surveyed state they are implementing product development process improvements. However, those outside of product development view the improvements as too little and still too late.

This state of affairs defies comprehension. Logic would dictate those who are expected to buy what you make should have input into its design. But then logic and business are often mutually exclusive. So we set out to discover if there were customers taking matters into their own hands.

In our research we purposely excluded Global 500 companies. These companies, by virtue of their spending, are more likely to be integrated into the product development process. For this project, we wanted to understand if, and how, an average customer is getting its needs met. We interviewed both manufacturers and software vendors to understand the role of the customer in their product development process (PDP). We then interviewed 50, mid-sized customers.

We discovered it is possible to influence product development, but it takes initiative, creativity and persistence. While no approaches varied in their tactical implementation, they fit into three categories:

Squeaky Wheel - This strategy is obvious: making yourself heard—over and over and over again. The specific tactics range from continuous calling into technical support to find out how to make the product do something it doesn’t do to a barrage of letters, emails and phone calls to senior executives complaining about the lack of functionality or poor serviceability.

This approach isn’t likely to win friends. Those who use it say that although it is effective, their relationships are strained. It also takes a tremendous amount of energy to keep up the level of “noise” required to get results. It is not a sustainable strategy. We found it used most often in companies who were frustrated after years of new product releases that failed to address critical needs.

Guinea Pig - In this strategy, customers volunteered to beta test or be a customer reference site whenever possible. Early participation gave these customers access to both product development and technical support personnel. They were able to influence not only the current product, but also the product roadmap. This approach requires strong technical competencies either internally or through a systems integrator. Collective Bargaining - In this strategy, customers unite for the greater good. There are two implementations of this strategy. One quite compelling. Customers, many whom competed with each other, organized what one member called a "union". The group staged both joint and individual campaigns to make their needs known.

Their approach targeted product development, technical support and the CFO. They purposely stayed away from sales or marketing. As one member said, “We wanted to separate ourselves from the whiners and complainers. We felt if we took a technical and financial approach, we’d have a better chance of being heard.” This approach is not for the meek or paranoid. It requires a well-defined charter, support from the most senior levels of management and ethics beyond compare. The results, though, were quite remarkable. Within three years, this group became a formal gate in the product development cycle of two strategic vendors. These vendors state the addition of the group to their PDP delivers an invaluable competitive advantage.

The second tactical implementation of this strategy is much more common: Leverage the existing user groups. We found this to be moderately effective. User groups are typically owned by sales or marketing and as such are almost as disconnected from the PDP as the customer. According to the product development teams we spoke to, user group feedback is often filtered to the point it isn’t informative enough to be useful.

What these three approaches share is the belief that customers are not hapless. Customers who proactively sought to get their needs met did so with a clear intent. If their vendor partners chose not to listen, they had other options. While for the most part they did not make threats, they did make it known their requirements were critical enough to their business that they must be met—ideally, by the current vendor.

They made it clear they considered themselves a partner in their vendor’s business and, as such, expected a commitment to mutual success. In essence, they change their role from the last step in the supply chain to a component of the value chain.

Anne Zink is founder of AZtech Strategies and go-to-market strategy consultant for the high tech industry. AZtech is dedicated to developing multi-channel strategies based on customer expectations, channel input, and industry expertise. AZtech specializes in bringing emerging technologies and services to market.