A Business Technology Place

Software open feedback loops

What is the secret sauce?

What really drives new software features? Do we live in a world where the marketing department rules the day with ROI driven and profit making capabilities from within the software? To an extent, I believe the answer is yes. Businesses exist to make money. Business software is written to facilitate the flow of money either through sales or automation of processes. If a piece of software doesn’t help the organization to make money it won’t last long.Simple_Feedback_02

But software that is not used, doesn’t make money. No matter how good the idea, if the software is not used, the business justification fails. This is why an open feedback loop with users is critical to the success of the software and could be tagged as the secret sauce for software development. User input drives usage. Usage accomplishes the goal for sales or productivity.

Creating the WOW.

Service organizations like to create the wow factor with customers to drive brand loyalty. Good software has that effect also. I see people that are passionate about Evernote, OneNote, and Photoshop as examples. Evernote survives with paid subscriptions. With a free-version available, and many options for recording/capturing notes, they have to “wow” customers to keep the software in the market place. The Evernote blog is a good place to see user input and feedback. Users provide feedback in the comments section and are often cited in case-study like blog posts. New features sometimes don’t have a direct link to increased sales. But they do have a direct link to usage which has a direct link to sales.

I was pleased this week when I heard a product manager tell a steering committee that we have a good feedback loop in place with the user-base that is driving feature enhancements in a software tool. Some of the feature-adds were completely cosmetic. But they were added to drive additional usage on the site. For the site referenced by the comment, additional usage means increased cost reduction through productivity gains in the back-office. If we execute properly, we should position ourselves to deliver the wow factor for the users. That was exactly the point of the comment.

So I submit that the open feedback loop with customers is the secret sauce that helps software achieve it’s stated goals. Product managers and marketers have to find the balance between user input and needed features for ROI. Without usage, the software is just a heap of 1s and 0s.

The customer is always right?

Is the customer always rights?
The question is more complicated than face value. Within the context of a single event you could make a case that the answer is yes. But this study posted on LinkedIn about customer experience and expectations suggests the customer may not always know what is best.  Of course what’s best depends on who is judging the situation. What’s best for the customer, as in a lowest price, may not always be what’s best for the business.  According to the study,the problem for businesses is that it often isn’t what drives additional sales.

Digging into voice of the customer.
I looked at the voice of customer remarks for the eCommerce sites that I help operate. There are definetly patterns within the data so I pulled some common customer feedback to analyze. The question to consider was would it add value to the business transaction to do what the customer wanted? Here’s a look at three of the common feedback items:

Lower prices – It’s the Internet and customers are used to retailers enticing them with free shipping. In my case consumers opinions are molded by banks offering “free checking”. But if the business lowered pricing for expedited delivery on product sales would the customers that are looking for lower delivery prices be more likely to upgrade from standard delivery?

Would lower prices add more value? No. Price sensitive customers want to shop for the lowest price but will leave anyways if they find a lower price elsewhere. For the business it creates a race to zero. Zero margins doesn’t create an environment for a sustainable business.

Ability to change shipping address – This feature is a bit trickier for my site because it is selling a financial instrument (paper check) on behalf of a bank/credit union. In most cases my business is contractually bound to not service an address change. The owning financial institution requires their customer to change their address at a branch location.

Would an address change add more value? Yes for the customer. It keeps them in their preferred channel. Yes for the business. It increases customer satisfaction by saving a trip to the branch or a phone call. This is a good opportunity to use technology to help change a business rule.

Package Change – We recently changed the traditional packaging for our main product from a box to a flat folio container. Prior to the change we conducted focus groups getting input from hundreds of consumers. They indicated overwhelmingly that the package change was a good thing. But post implementation feedback has been mixed.

Would it add value to allow the customer to pick their package type? No. In this case the customer isn’t buying the package. They are buying the product in the package. For the business, it creates more costs to have equipment that provide the product in two different formats and it reduces the opportunity for volume based shipping rates for a given package type.

The article published on LinkedIn gives all of us a subject we should think about more. Is the customer always right? As with many questions in life, my answer is “it depends”.

Co-branding for clients

There have been times in my work career when a software feature/solution comes up in conversation multiple times within a short period of time. When this happens, it makes me stop and think as if the event itself is raising a hand to get my attention. Pay attention, this is an important concept. Learn from it!

This happened to me recently with the ability to co-brand a website with client branding. One of the websites I manage is a B2B website that provides financial services to consumers on behalf of banks and credit unions. It’s a single set of code that is used to service multiple clients. Distinct branding is supported at the individual client level because the site supports a style sheet for each client.

There’s nothing fancy or complicated about that. But it is a big feature in the B2B space where clients want to maintain and front their brand to the consumers. It’s come up several times over the years as a competitive advantage in the marketplace for my company. When the feature is enabled, it maps the official logo, color palette, and fonts of our client into the base template of our site to create a near seamless transition from the client site. I call it co-branding instead of private label because there are a few minor elements where my company name shows (privacy link, contact us, etc.)

After a few recent implementations, the topic came up again this week while I was talking shop with a former colleague about his work in a different industry. His boss didn’t think they could use the build-it-once and brand model to get scalability from a single site. The boss thought that each client would require their own custom solution. So my friend showed him a live client implementation of a co-branded bank site as a way to explain the client branding approach. His point was that in a B2B model where the client outsources the operations of the business function, that the client is more accepting of the solution when they see the branding. It acts and feels like an extension of their site.

At the end of the day how you accomplish this is a technical decision. But if you work in the B2B space and service consumers for your clients, then make it a priority to support customer branding for each client.

What your company website is about and what it is not

Company websites are an opportunity to create solutions for a customer.
The website is not about your products/services and how great they are.
The website is about how your products/services solve problems/needs for customers.

The website is not about your many awards and achievements.
The website is about the customers that were satisfied to win those awards.

The website is not about keeping customers away from you by having a generic set of FAQs.
The website is about getting customers in touch with people that can answer questions.

The website is not about public relations copy and marketing spin.
The website is about communicating in real language with real people.

The website is not about company executive profiles.
The website is about reviews from your customers.

Company websites should be an eCommerce engine first.
If you have products to sell then they should be the lead on your website. The corporate stuff is secondary. I’ve seen some well known B2C brands use their brand name for eCommerce while the corporate site is linked and uses a different domain URL. The point is don’t make your customers have to find the shopping cart. Give them a shopping cart at the door.

Company websites should be simple but engaging.
The website is not about rows of words from your best copywriter.
The website is about delivering a message in a concise and simple way.

The website is not about layer upon layer of pages.
The website is about making solutions findable.

There is no cookie cutter template for the design.
The bottom line is that web site is your unique voice to your chosen audience. It’s about engagement, not broadcast. It’s about eCommerce, not prohibitive rules. It’s about solutions, not advertisements.

What’s a company website to you?

*note to readers and myself. I wrote this post as a collection of my thoughts and learnings about business. The website is just a tool and touchpoint that shows the beliefs a company has about it’s mission. But the post is about business not about websites. After I re-read my words I thought some might interpret this as a negative rant. But it’s really not. The post is collection of contrasting thoughts about a better way to make a connection with customers.

Doing it right with customer focus

Doing it right.
I love seeing companies that are “doing it right” and reaping the rewards of success. By doing it right, I mean providing value driven products or services customers want and respect. Companies like Chick-fil-A, Disney, and QuickTrip (QT) come to mind. Wait a minute. Isn’t QT a gas station?

This week I read about QT, as an example of a customer focused business.  I live in the metro Atlanta area where QT stations and stores are booming with customers and business.  The description of brightly lit stations that are clean and well-staffed is accurate and to the point. While, the lower prices on gasoline are the hook to get customers to the store, it’s the facilities, food selection and customer service that keep many of them coming back.

It’s not just the inside of the stores that are kept clean. It’s the pumping area as well. Customers can expect to find the pump area concrete clear of oil, trash, and any other stuff that may find it’s way to the ground.  Windshield washing fluid and paper towels are fully stocked.  Those are the little things that customers notice. It’s value beyond low price gasoline.

Let’s get personal for a moment.
Companies are ultimately driven by profits and returns to shareholders. “For profit” is a game changing phrase that drives boardroom, executive suite, and marketing plan decisions.  What’s unfortunate is when profits become more important than the original mission and intent of company founders. Customers don’t do business with profits. Customers do business with service and value.

It’s impressive to see a gas station/convenience store chain like QT sticking to the original plan of clean stores and great customer service. They are rewarded with profits and growth because they are taking care of their customer. A simple formula, yet so elusive for many.

There’s a lesson in QTs success for everyone.
Courteous employees, clean facilities, and value driven prices are a winning combination. Those things drive repeat business, a good reputation, and most of all profits. So let’s make those principals more than just business school text book material. Let’s make them reality. It’s good business. Just ask QT.