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Everyone has questions about customers. Here are answers.

September 11, 2014 By Mark Hurst 1 Comment

The weirdest thing happens in the last 10 minutes of my “customers included” talks, which I’m giving all around the US about the Creative Good book . I open the floor for Q&A, and regardless of the size of company (startup to enterprise) or the industry (media, retail, finance, etc.), teams often ask the same questions about customers.

Companies today are trying to figure out the customer. The similarities in the questions are striking, regardless of industry or region or team size, or even the role of the executives I’m speaking to. It’s like everyone has woken up to the importance of customers, but no one is quite sure what to do next.

(Well, almost no one is quite sure. One or two executives have assured me that they have pinned their hopes on this or that tactical software-development method – one executive repeatedly told me “we’re winning” – but for the most part, executives understand that this is a complex challenge not resolved with a silver bullet.)

The questions – how to talk to customers, how to organize the team, and how to measure success – are a sign of health, reflecting a team’s desire to continually improve. In my responses I try encourage the team to do the hard, sustained work of including the customer.

Here’s what I suggest:

1. Always start with a strong business case. Customer input only makes sense in the context of a well-formed business question. This also helps answer difficult questions around serving multiple customer types whose needs aren’t aligned.

2. Don’t ask customers what they want. Instead, find out what customers want. Asking customers to design the product for you is unlikely to work.

3. Involve the decisionmakers in the process. Too often executives will avoid direct customer observation because “some other team is doing that.” Instead, all decisionmakers should play a part. And bringing in an unbiased third-party, like Creative Good, to facilitate the process can be very powerful.

As always, contact us if Creative Good can help. We’re the best at helping companies include the customer.

Are online experiences getting better or worse?

August 21, 2014 By Mark Hurst 1 Comment

As the Web turns 25, it seems to be the moment when old-timers (myself among them) look around and ask, “Are things getting better or worse online?”

The original sin of the Internet, Ethan Zuckerman writes in the Atlantic, is the underlying business model. Advertising and intrusive surveillance allow users to access services like Gmail and Facebook for “free” – quotes used here because they’re obviously not free – rather than simply asking customers to pay.

The Internet with a Human Face, which I linked to a few weeks ago, is really worth reading if you haven’t taken the time. Maciej Cegłowski, who founded Pinboard (which I highly recommend in my recent Cool Tools interview), delivers a strong indictment against the harmful effects of Google’s business model on the user experience online.

Email Is Still the Best Thing on the Internet, writes Alexis Madrigal in the Atlantic. Not only is it not dead, as people have predicted, but it’s proven surprisingly resilient on mobile devices. (There’s still the question of how to manage your email, a skill which you can learn in three bullet points.)

Doomed to repeat it, writes Paul Ford, referring to programmers’ recurring attempts to “fix” email and todo lists with an endless series of new apps and platforms. (Personally I prefer my own todo list, Good Todo, which solves both problems – and as it turns 10 years old this year, has longer usage than any of the tools mentioned in the column.)

The bad customer experiences from Comcast and Time Warner are likely to continue, I argue in this Huffington Post article by Tim Stenovec.

On the other hand, today we have Wikipedia, and Meetup, and Duck Duck Go – all services that didn’t exist 25 years ago. There’s plenty to improve online, but plenty to celebrate as well.

Customer experience and the choice between Lean/Agile and waterfall

August 14, 2014 By Mark Hurst 4 Comments

Agile agile agile. As companies in every industry move to create digital products and services (and customer experiences!), every team I talk to has some comment on Agile. This is, of course, today’s preferred development method for all things digital – much like its counterpart, Lean, takes much the same approach from more of a product management perspective.

But many teams are still grappling with basic questions: what exactly qualifies as Agile? And is it better than “waterfall” (the older development method) at creating the all-important good customer experience?

I spoke recently at the Agile Executive Forum alongside some very skilled executives who have lived the “Agile transformation” that so many companies are talking about. It got me thinking about how to describe Agile, and answer those questions, in a simpler way.

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In some parallel universe, there’s New York and there’s San Francisco, but no way to travel between those cities. Lots of people want to travel the NYC-to-SF route and are willing to pay. Two project teams start out: one builds a train, and one builds a car.

Waterfall is building a train, and Agile is building a car.

The railroad gets built, and the first train starts rolling from NYC to SF. Halfway across the country, the customers say, “Actually, we’ve changed our minds – we want to go to Los Angeles.” The train drops them off in San Francisco and people say, “You dummies, we said we wanted to go to Los Angeles and you still dropped us off in San Francisco!” The train – representing “waterfall” development – had no way of rapidly responding to changing customer needs. And so the railroad begins laboriously building a new train line to Los Angeles (but when that’s done, customers will have changed their minds and want to go to Seattle instead).

The second team, building a car, represents the Agile approach: it’s able, in theory, to allow for course corrections in the middle of the journey, based on data that comes in after the trip starts.

What’s common across both methods, and perhaps more important than the choice between Agile and waterfall, is the basic foundation of good engineering practices. (Plenty of teams run around shouting “agile,” like they want to build a car instead of a train, but have no idea how to assemble a transmission!) If you have a choice between a well-engineered waterfall project and a slipshod Agile project, you’ll do better with waterfall.

So let’s suppose you do the “right” thing and build a car factory, allowing customers to drive cars from NYC to to whatever west coast city they want to visit. But then the business still fails. Why? No one buys a single car, because customers are suddenly flocking to your new competitor, which is named JetBlue. It turns out customers do want to get from NYC to LA, but they don’t want to drive such a long distance. Wrong customer experience. The Agile car project is a flop because it didn’t take into consideration the full business context.

Lessons for any team considering Lean-Agile processes:

• Make sure you understand the business case, and that it’s informed by strong customer insight. (This is the piece that Creative Good consulting can help with, and which most teams skip over.)

• Be sure that your fundamentals of project management and development are sound. This is more important than following a particular method.

• If you’ve done all of the above, then consider whether to dive into Agile, waterfall, or some other method. If the market could change quickly, probably use Agile. If it’s a static, well-known challenge – perhaps an infrastructure or re-platforming project – choose whichever method (and it could be waterfall!) will get the milestones achieved with the lowest cost and highest quality.

And whatever you do, make sure you include the customer.

The disruption delusion: what happens when customers aren’t included

July 24, 2014 By Mark Hurst 7 Comments

Do you like buzzwords? Over the years at Creative Good, we’ve encountered our share of them, like “synergy” and “disintermediation” and “empowerment.” Like all buzzwords, they offer vaguely exciting possibilities while delivering little or no actual meaning. Which is a description that seems increasingly apt, these days, to what is perhaps the most widely revered buzzword of them all: disruption.

The word needs little introduction to anyone who has spent any time in the business world. The startups most hotly pursued by tech journalists are those with “disruptive” products overturning their industries. Likewise, products that emerge as a success are often described as being disruptive. Even enterprise-level organizations are looking for ways to avoid being disrupted by smaller, nimbler competitors.

Even Customers Included, our recent book describing Creative Good’s worldview, has a section on disruption – but we take a different stance. Instead of blindly praising anything that can be termed “disruptive,” the book asks the key question: what about the customer?

To make the case, the book points out the fiasco suffered by Netflix a few years back, when the company made a surprise announcement that it planned to move its DVD business into a poorly-named spinoff called “Qwikster.” Despite the resounding and very public failure of the move (almost a million customers cancelled their subscriptions), a leading tech journalist actually praised the decision, calling it “disruptive.” As if responding to the obvious and deafening vocal opposition from customers, the journalist wrote, “the problem with customers is that they don’t always know what’s best for them.” In other words: make a radical decision, regardless of whether it succeeds or fails, and feel free to ignore the customer. That’s disruption.

I don’t believe disruption was originally meant in this way. Clayton Christensen, who described the concept in his popular book “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” didn’t say a lot about customer experience. And as written in Customers Included, I think disruption, like any good tool or framework, can be valuable – as long as customers are included in some significant way. Instead, the problem with disruption is how it is commonly understood and practiced. The mania to pursue anything that can be called “disruptive” can tempt executives to make high-profile mistakes on par with Qwikster.

This is the case made by Jill Lepore in her recent New Yorker article, The Disruption Machine, as she explores “what the gospel of innovation gets wrong.” I’d recommend the article to anyone who is tired of the cult-like reverence paid to the twin buzzwords of “disruption” and “innovation” these days. The details of her research, which took a second look at Christensen’s original case studies, have been called into question (by John Hagel, Michael Raynor, TechCrunch, and Christensen himself, who in a fit of defensive posturing called Lepore’s piece a “criminal act of dishonesty”). To whatever extent you want to prove or disprove the theory of disruption, these may be worthwhile resources.

But the case remains that, in popular usage and practice, “disruption” has gone too far, and is understood too little, to do much good for most teams. I say this because very frequently when I hear about a “disruptive” product or strategy, I notice a key point missing. Customers aren’t included. As pointed out in our book:

Pursuing disruption by itself is not sufficient to create a winning strategy. One could propose a dozen ways to disrupt any given industry – and launch a company or initiative to try out each one – but without some thought toward the impact on customers, all those disruptive ideas are likely to fail. Companies that aim to be disruptive should include, not ignore, the customer.

I wish the acolytes of disruption would take this to heart. The “disruption delusion” is that you should ignore the customer when making strategic decisions. Anyone who has read our book knows that the truth is just the opposite.

A doctor’s thoughts on the patient experience (applicable to all teams)

June 13, 2014 By Mark Hurst 1 Comment

An emergency doctor gets hit by a car while on a business trip, receives indifferent treatment at the local hospital, and years later is still struggling to recover.

Writing in HealthAffairs about the incident (the whole column is an excellent read), Charlotte Yeh argues that the guiding principle in healthcare should be “to know the patient, hear the patient, and respond to what matters to the patient. It should make no difference where you practice; any provider can do this. [We] can’t hide behind the excuses of ‘we’re too busy’ or ‘it’s too chaotic’ to avoid connecting with every patient.” Her patient experience shows that that’s not the case today.

Replace “patient” with “customer” and this becomes applicable to any organization today.

Make the same replacement here:

We have become test-happy and technology-powered. These tools may provide us with good data on the patient, but this doesn’t mean we’re serving the good of the patient.

Sound familiar? Connecting with customers has to be more than just automated, check-the-box solutions.

For the health care industry in particular, Yeh suggests reconsidering how we define “good”:

Despite some national consensus on quality metrics, we have continued struggling to measure “the good of the patient.” Still, quality metrics cannot alone advance the good of the patient. Focusing on clinical measures in particular is not enough as long as other measures that focus on patient-desired outcomes are ignored. If we don’t understand what patients’ expectations are, we can’t engage patients effectively in their care.

Read Yeh’s story here. Also, be super-careful crossing the street.