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You wish he was different, but you don’t

Get this guy on your team!

During a recent weekly business review meeting with one my staff members, we discussed movement and progress within one of our key enterprise level accounts. A new contact in the customer’s organization is driving some changes to how we’ve done business in the past. Our organization is adjusting to the new requirements and trying to maintain expected service levels.customer advocate

When people change in a business relationship, it can create a strain on the overall relationship and service delivery. Personalities change. Requirements may change. It’s a new dynamic. Does a customer account manager have to work harder during a time like this? I don’t think working harder is the right way to describe it, but the customer account manager must be resolute in their focus to keep products and services flowing at expected levels.

My staff member commented “You wish he was different, but you don’t”. The comment was based on the actions of the customer account manager representing the interests of the customer within our organization. He wasn’t acting with complete abandon to sensibility and profitability of the account. But he was acting with an open mind that solutions do exist and we can work towards adjusting the program to the new requirements.

What great customer account managers provide to an organization.

  • Customer Advocacy – They promote the interests of the customer to the organization. Customers pay for products and services that provide value to them. The customer advocate represents this.
  • Pushes the organization to get better – They push an organization to think differently. Maybe it’s a new product or service that is needed. Maybe it’s delivering and existing product or service differently.
  • Sees through the lens of the customer – This is different than customer advocacy. While a customer advocate is an inward facing role to an organization, seeing through the customer’s lens is an outward facing role. A great customer account manager works to understand the customer’s view point. They spend time listening to the customer to see and feel their business need.

It’s not new – but a good reminder

None of this is new news. But it’s a good reminder that colleagues in our organizations are on the front line with the customers with the goal to build a relationship that provides value to both sides. It’s not easy.  The customer account manager may seem unreasonable at times, dare I say unstable? You wish he was different, but then realize you really don’t. That’s when you get it. That’s when you move forward and get on-board.

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”.

Customer surveys as voice of the customer

Using online surveys to talk to your eCommerce customers can be a rewarding as well as painful experience. Painful in the sense that customers will tell you your weaknesses or where your site falls short of their expectations. Yet isn’t that a reward as well?

There are an abundance of online survey tool options available today. The tools make it easy to create, deploy, and analyze results. Yet the value for eCommerce product owners is opening the door to hear the voice of the customer. This concept is so import that customer surveys are a product owner responsibility on the eCommerce organization mind map.

Getting results real-time brings more attention
Traditional print and mail surveys make it difficult to get survey results. It’s usually a multi-step process that involves exporting results, importing data into a database or spreadsheet, and then creating reports. With an online customer survey system, results are available real-time by authenticating to an administrative console where answers for each question are automatically tallied and graphed. I always say “people get easy, people like easy, people use easy.” That holds true for business processes as it does for eCommerce site use. When the tools are easy to use they’ll get more use and attention.

Customer surveys are a great tool for primary research
But let’s not forget what we are really after with customer surveys; to find the voice of the customer. Remember, surveys are a way to find data that doesn’t already exist. It’s a way to here first-hand from customers how they feel, what they see, or what they might do. Did you catch that? It’s a way to stay relevant to customers by hearing what’s important to them.

Change the questions at regular intervals
Traditional paper surveys have limitations based on the number of surveys distributed, the logistics of delivery, and the timing of the analysis. Online customer surveys change these limitations because questions can be changed without worrying about unused print inventory or the time to collect answers. This advantage is important because it allows product managers to change questions at regular intervals. I like to think of this as keeping a conversation going rather than repeating yourself over-and-over again.

Use the answers to justify work and test hypothesis
Product owners get a double benefit from the answers they receive from online customer surveys. When answers turn into patterns and patterns turn into a majority, the product manager can use this evidence to justify changes on the eCommerce site. Additionally, the answers serve as a basis to test theories within the business about certain topics. Would a customer buy this new product? How does the customer like the new payment options? What products would the customer like to see in the future?

On more thing. Reading open responses on customer surveys requires thick skin. Remember, some customers are responding to the survey because they’ve had a bad experience with the site, service, or products offered to them. This can create strong emotions with people. Read through their emotions to find the core issue. That’s the real voice of the customer.

Learnings and Takeaways from Product Camp Atlanta 2010

I attended Product Camp Atlanta last weekend hosted at the Georgia Tech Research Institute Conference Center. Product Camp AtlantaIt was my first product camp, so the only knowledge of format and content I had going in was from the description on the web site. The topics of the conference focused on product management and marketing which are the two primary areas of my career experience and interests.

Overall I was pleased with my decision to go to the all-day camp. Time was given to the sponsors to introduce themselves since they provided the financial backing to make the event possible. However, it was very non-intrusive to the day and didn’t come off as a sales pitch.  Participants voted on a list of possible break-out session subjects that were submitted by other participants.  This allowed the group to discuss a variety of topics over the course of the day.  Each hour there were four choices so that participants could pick a session that matched their interests.  In my opinion, the best sessions were those where the speakers facilitated a discussion rather than giving a presentation.  I say this because my understanding and expectation in attending the conference was that the sessions would be more collaborative and discussion oriented. For the most part, I felt speakers honored this conference format.

Here are four random takeaways that I recorded during the sessions:

1. Value of business cases

  • Removes pet features
  • Keeps discussions on merits of the features
  • Removes emotion

I liked this thought because typically businesses case development gets a lot of groans and whining when people mention the topic. It’s not easy to complete a business case, but it does provide and important function for the business to adequately allocate resources to work. This bullet list provides a quick and easy-to-understand value for the effort expended on the business case.

2.  The voice of the customer is more relevant than your individual job tenure, experience, or credentials

The context of this quote came in a discussion about how a cultural shift is needed to take learnings from the classroom to the operations of a business. When we attend conferences, take classes, or receive training we often come back to our organizations with great ideas and learnings. But implementing these ideas is another story, especially if we are the only member of our business to receive the new knowledge.  It requires a cultural shift to implement learnings.  Tools that give us an insight into the voice of the customer are readily available, but often overlooked.

3. Google Wave was not in use by most of the attendees

Well, at least for those attending a break out session on this topic. The tool holds promise as a format for real time collaboration but needs to overcome concerns related to security of information to gain wide acceptance in a corporate environment. It should be noted that the product is still in Beta at Google and it hasn’t been publicized widely. Google is using a viral marketing technique to create awareness about wave. You have to be invited by an existing participant to join.

4. Solve for competing priorities by using a percentage based resource allocation strategy

In one session we discussed various methods and techniques for resource allocation and project prioritization. One way to complete development team resource allocation is by dividing the time against development areas on a percentage basis:

  • x% new development
  • y% architecture
  • z% support/defects
I liked this thought because its easy to overlook the need for architectural updates and support items in favor of new development. This is especially true for mature software products where the architecture may no longer be new or the list of defects may have grown with the passing of time.
I’m looking forward to the next Product Camp in Atlanta.  It’s a great time for sharing, learning, and networking.