4 Questions to Help Enterprise Software Companies Create a Customer-Centric Product Development Culture

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If you come home from work every day asking yourself why the enterprise applications you use are non-intuitive at best, and completely unusable at worst, you’re not alone.

Many studies over the last decade have shed light on enterprise software usability issues. A 2017 report by Unit4 shows that the vast majority of enterprise software users (76%) feel “meh” about the applications they have to use at work. According to a 2016 study from Forrester and Sapho, 75% of employees surveyed had a “hard time accessing information in their enterprise systems and applications.” The list goes on.

While there is no silver bullet for developing enterprise applications that people want to use, a good place to start is building a customer-centric product development strategy.

After leading product development efforts for more than two decades, I’ve seen firsthand that the better an enterprise software company is at listening to customers during all stages of the product development process, the happier the customers are with the final product.

There isn’t an objectively right way to build a customer-centric product development strategy, but focusing on these four questions can help ensure your organization moves towards a customer-centric product development culture — one in which your team is working together to engage customers in a holistic, effective manner.

How are you sourcing customer ideas and feedback?

According to McKinsey, B2B customer experience ratings are much lower than B2C — the latter scoring in the 65-85 range, and the former below 50. Second, Forrester reports that only 23% of B2B companies are “customer-committed,” defined as having “a customer-centric culture.” The same report highlights that about 65 percent of companies are either “customer aware,” which means they see “no need to disrupt business as usual,” or even worse, customer-naive, where they “demonstrate customer-centricity in isolated pockets only.”

If B2B companies want to get serious about improving the customer experience and becoming more customer-centric, one key focus must be on sourcing customer ideas and feedback.

There are endless places where you can capture customer ideas for both new and existing products. For instance, you can collect data not just from existing customers, but also from prospective customers. Make sure your product development teams are getting feedback from sales teams on what prospects are asking for, and put in place the appropriate systems to track this feedback. Conferences and events are another great place to capture ideas from prospective customers.

When it comes to current customers, the above two points also apply. In addition, you can take a critical look at how you’re surveying customers. You’ll want to capture feedback on their ideas for new products, as well as on existing products, in a way that allows you to segment the input by group, geography, and language. Classify the feedback, and meet with your team at least every few months to go through the top findings.

How closely do you work with customers during beta testing?

According to Gallup, only 46% of B2B buyers strongly agree that a company “always delivers on what they promise.” While there are many contributing factors that affect this statistic, I’d argue that one way of making this percentage go up is working with customers more effectively during the beta testing stage.

I deeply subscribe to getting your top customers involved with beta testing. You can talk them through everything from product requirements, to the architecture of how the product will be built. You can show them a first proof of concept, as well as a hard-coded demo, and alpha and beta versions. The best products I’ve worked on were built with this level of customer involvement.

This may sound like more of a commitment than you’re used to asking from your customers, but you’ll find that many customers want a high level of involvement in product development. From their perspective, if they are investing heavily in your companies’ products or services, they will want to be brought in on day one of your product development to make sure their problems are being solved.

How are you getting customer feedback on your products post-launch?

Just because you got a lot of input from customers during the designing and testing phase doesn’t mean you should stop listening to them after launching. According to a survey from HundredX of 503 business executives, 89 percent of respondents reported that receiving customer feedback on products and services can help “capture opportunities and solve problems.” 

One approach that has worked well for my teams is establishing a customer advisory board, where you bring together a group of customers to meet every 3 to 6 months. During these gatherings, you show them what your company is working on, while also seeking feedback on the products that are in the market today.

What is your approach to incorporating customer ideas into your products and services?

Listening to the customer is critical, but doing exactly what a customer asks you to do can be misguided. There is the typical way of acting on customer ideas, and then there’s what I’d argue is the right way.

The typical way is building exactly what each customer asks for. I’ve found that more often than not, this ends in chaos. If you accommodate every product development request without thinking through it first, you end up with a lot of custom developments that might work well for that company, but won’t scale to others. Instead, I suggest continuing to listen to your customers, look for commonalities in what they’re asking for, but then figure out how to develop a solution that will work effectively across a number of companies.

Another factor that will determine how you incorporate customer feedback into your products and services is the type of additions the customer is requesting. Here are three examples of requests you might receive:

The first is when there’s an existing product, and a minor feature or modification a number of customers ask you to incorporate. Your product development team agrees that this is something that they can and should build. In this case, you can likely accommodate the customer request quickly, especially if you’re a B2B SaaS company where updates are pushed to all of your customers automatically.

The second, more complex scenario is when your customers are asking for a product that augments your existing offering. For example, if you’re a B2B company developing a software platform that has accounting software for businesses, your customers might asking for complementary time tracking software. In this case, your product team will have to take more time to build out and beta test the new product.

The third, and most challenging scenario is when you are hearing from customers that they want an entirely new or different solution — essentially, a new product offering. This will require much more development time and beta testing, and could be something that’s your team works on over a matter of years instead of months.

Everything I’ve written above might sound like a lot of work, but believe me, it’s worth it. There is nothing more important than the customer. You can build the finest piece of technology known to mankind, but if no one is willing to buy it, there’s no business. In fact, the only way to build a business is by listening to your customers. Everything else is a distraction.

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