The Value of Customers

14 Sep
The recent conversations on #assnchat about what associations need to do in order to deliver value to their members got me thinking about some interesting experiences that I have had in the software industry. One, in particular, seems relevant to the challenges facing associations.

I’ve been involved in a number of startups in the software industry. What’s interesting about startups is that at the beginning you build something based on your own ideas about how something should be done.  And normally, you are testing it and trying to use it in realistic ways as you go through the development process. In the best of all worlds, you actually fall in love with what you’ve built because it does what you want it to do so well.

And one day, you think its good enough to actually have potential customers try it out. If you’re lucky, you get a lot of positive feedback. But even in that case, you’ll find that people have lots of suggestions and questions.

I remember one situation like this very clearly. We had gotten the product installed for the customer and, overall, they were quite happy. There was one thing they were having a little trouble with though. I read through the emails from them and talked to them on the phone, and it seemed to me as though they didn’t really understand how this one feature was supposed to work. So, I would patiently explain to them what they needed to do. And they politely thanked me for the information.

About a month later, I had the opportunity to go visit this customer and they invited me in to see the product being used live. It was pretty exciting to see it in action. And then came the time where they needed to use the feature that had been problematic for them. As I watched the poor soul try to get the software to do what he wanted, I realized how completely I had misunderstood what their problem really was and how thoroughly we had failed to understand what it was really like to use that aspect of the product.

Based on that experience, we were able to significantly re-work that aspect of the product and come up with something that actually did work out in the real world.

There’s been a lot of talk about delivering value to customers on #assnchat, but I think to really understand whether you are delivering value, you have to be out there with your customers. You need to understand what it is they are trying to achieve and how your products/services fit into that. And the acid test is to watch them, in real life, as they go about their jobs and see whether you really do make their lives easier and/or better.

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