Getting What You Want

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.