Learning this changed my career

The year was 2001. I was in a room presenting a 1.0 version of an internal browser-based utility that enabled our billing department to generate a current customer price card without running a program and print job from the mainframe. It was a leap forward with technology use, but more importantly a win for my colleagues in the billing department. The program allowed them to generate price cards on-demand and send it to the customer immediately rather than waiting for operators, tapes, and mainframe printers. 

I was presenting to Paul, the lead executive for the back-office business processes.  I wanted to make the application available to the external customer to reduce the number of pricing inquiries they sent us. But despite my youthful exuberance and successful demo, he denied my request. 

The year was 2004.  My company was a partner organization offering discounted financial supplies for members of a popular warehouse club. I was the product manager for an internet application the warehouse club members used for ordering. We had 90 days to build and ready the site for service. While the core application was ready to launch, we didn’t have all the products available in the store. During the build process we were informed on multiple occasions the customer didn’t see a full product catalog as a priority. In fact, they wanted the product selection minimized. Their priority was to make sure the site promoted the value of the upgraded warehouse membership.  We accomplished that before go-live and the site was approved to proceed on schedule with only a partial set of products.

What made the difference between the project that was approved and the one that was not? One word. Value. In the first example the program provided value to the billing department, but the end customer was not asking for this capability. The customer didn’t want their employees spending time generating price cards, rather they wanted them spending time within their own business.

In the second example, the customer didn’t define value in terms of UX requirements, site flows, checkout funnels, or product catalogs. The customer defined value by how many of their members paid the membership upgrade fee. For them, this upgrade was pure profit. In our site design we made sure to promote the benefits of the upgraded membership in terms of price and service to the customer. If you entered our site with the basic warehouse membership, you would have been checking the math before completing a purchase to compare the value of the membership upgrade with our product prices.

The lesson I learned is the first principle of Lean management and the first guiding principle in ITIL management. I simply have to ask, ‘what does the customer want from this product/service?’ I had to learn that It is the customer who defines value, not me or my colleagues. Focus on value.

Learning this lesson changed my career. I went from a technology professional pushing technology features to a professional seeking connection to customer defined value. Project discussions have a different vibe when told through the eyes of the customer. They align project objectives to mission and purpose. That’s a place we all want to be.

Onward and Upward

Photo Credit: ask direction by Alessandro Augusto Lucia via creative commons