This post isn’t going to win me many friends in the sales community, but that is OK. Because letting the sales department or for that matter any part of the business (say finance) take the focus off of delivering what the customer really needs is Wrong—and that is, intentionally, with a capital W.
Please notice that I said “what the customer really needs” and didn’t say “what the customer wants”. This is an important distinction because if you are looking to be a game changer and want to truly delight your customers you have to get past taking an order and start really understand what is needed.
When Pat Allin and I did the initial investigation prior to the founding of Textura, we spent a good, long time listening to the folks that would be our future customers. We observed how they did business, listened to their complaints and heard what they were asking for. Then we spent time, significant time, dissecting the things that were causing them pain (not just what they said, but what from what we observed in watching them do their work) and explored ways of addressing those pain points, specifically the ones that were getting in the way of making them productive and more profitable.
This approach to working with a customer is something that both Pat and I learned as consultants. Our experience taught us that good consultants listen to what a customer is asking for and deliver a solution that meets those expectations, but that a great consultant (this applies to the product developer too) does more. The great consultant brings much more than an ability to listen to what the customer is asking for; the great consultant makes things happen. This includes an ability to:
- Observer and takes the time to understand the unstated (and in many respects unknown, to the customer) requirements. Two examples:
- I remember a story that I heard in business school. It was about the introduction of the first cup holders in the auto industry which were introduced by Honda. Do you remember cars before cup holders? I do, they were two indentations on the inside surface of the glove box door and you set you cup in the indentation. The Honda product planners didn’t hear any requests for cup holders, but what they observed was that drivers were using many riggings (including the space between their thighs) as ersatz cup holders because there weren’t any usable ones provided by the car manufacturer. So, they designed something that their customers needed and now a real, thoughtfully designed cup holder is a feature in virtually every car on the road; and
- Pat Allin and I observed significant delays in projects due to the inconsistent and inefficient methods of communicating whether work had been completed properly. The contractors we talked to didn’t see any issue with this— it was an accepted feature of doing business in the construction industry. But both Pat’s and my experience in other industries clearly spoke to us and suggested an automated system that would manage this process both effectively and efficiently. And, our solution was to design and implement a system that managed the entire value chain from specifying the work through to payment. This solution changed the commercial construction industry making it significantly more efficient and changing the way that work is managed and payments are made in commercial construction.
- Apply their experience (often outside of the scope of what their clients may have ever been exposed to) to the formulation of solutions. A consultant (or product designer) is supposed to come into the game with a broad/deep understanding of the subject that they are working on. In fact, the best of breed come in with an experience set that is much broader than the subject area they are working on and are expected to draw on all of their experience in helping to craft solutions. This capability is born out of industry specific experience that is gathered through interactions with a network of knowledgeable practitioners and in exceptional cases a broad set of experiences that go beyond the domain that they are currently consulting in.
- Work with their clients to help them understand the value in the product, service or solution and the potential changes to the client’s business processes and importantly to assist in the implementation of the implementation. At Textura, we focused on great product designed to change the industry and a high touch service organization that was capable of helping our customers to implement the changes and improve their business performance.
There is an alternative to the approach I have outlined here. It involves an incrementalism that focuses on the immediate pain that a client may be feeling. And, sales FEELS that pain. They feel it when the client is buying and they feel it when the client is renewing their contract for service. And, being a diligent advocate for the client the sales organization pushes to address the issues that their clients’ raise, have them specified as project improvements and scheduled into the product development cycle. Don’t get me wrong, many of these changes are legitimate, even urgent. The issue occurs when they become the primary or only source of product improvement ideas.
But, the chance that your company will continue to be an innovator that changes the world plummet when you don’t have a properly designed product development process, one that accounts for what that client needs not just what they want. This means:
- Separating product development from sales and making sure that it is independent of influences such as those described above. This can be done in one of several ways, one of which is to require that sales fund requests that they find are non-negotiable required. I would include that in: “the cost of sales” rather than “R&D”;
- Making sure that the product development organization is responsible and accountable to the client. This means making sure that the product development organization has several different sources for product features (including the sales organization) and a method of prioritizing opportunities that is both objective and transparent;
- Ensuring that there is a product strategy that can inform decision making which includes both short and longer term investment decisions. This is really the most important of the three, but had I put it first, you might never have gotten to read the other two pointsJ
So, in summary, I assert that Product Development should not be driven by the sales process or any other of the core business processes. This is another way of saying that a robust, independent product development process is essential to a company’s health and an investment that will pay dividends. And, in my opinion, either by design or by chance solid product development efforts are the reason that some companies (the ones that take this path) are leaders and change the world and others (who don’t) are also-rans.
Finally, (as a teaser for my next post which will be on product strategy), product development should inform financial decisions rather than be directed by them.