Customer Experience – What exactly is it?

In the software world, all vendors love to talk about how their product is easy to use, how user friendly it is and other combinations of words to describe product usability. But, does product usability equate to customer experience? No. Product usability is necessary but not sufficient for a good customer experience. In fact, good products can still deliver awful customer experience. Read about Apple below.

Customer experience encompasses every interaction your customer has with your product AND your company. Everything from the initial sales call, product evaluation, buying process, product packaging, product usage, calling your customer support, product upgrade and everything else the user experiences as long as he is a customer of your company. It starts from the very first phone conversation and never ends as long as the user remains your customer.

What this means is that there is a lot more to customer experience than just your product. It is a lot more emotional than physical. If your customer support person does not solve the customer’s problem, it equates to bad customer experience. If your product does not work as intended, it is bad customer experience. If you try to charge unjustifiable fees to allow the customer to upgrade, it is bad customer experience. If your install is complicated, it is bad customer experience. Surprising the customer with hidden charges (example, high shipping costs on eCommerce site) equates to bad customer experience. If your customer has to deal with long hold times when they try to reach your customer support, it is bad customer experience. And bad customer experience is what makes customers bolt to your competitor’s products.

Thus, it is very obvious that customer experience is a cross functional effort and to do this right, you need executive mandate. Such a mandate should come right from the top – from  the CEO of the company. It should permeate across the organization. To get this right, it needs to be part of the employee training, it should be drilled into new employees. I would go as far as saying that you should not hire a candidate if you feel that he does not have the personality or will not be able to commit to delivering good experience to your customers. This is easier said than done. It takes a lot of effort and just talk is not going to work.

Now, what companies deliver such great customer experience? Southwest Airlines comes to mind because of all the positive things I have read about them. Their ads about bags fly free resonates so much with me. Does Apple deliver a good customer experience? NO! They deliver an awesome product experience for sure with their awesome products. But have you worked with their customer support? You will feel that you are dealing with a different company that is arrogant and does not care about you.

I try my best to keep my employer out of my blog posts. But in this particular post, I am going to break this rule. I work at Gazelle.com and to deliver what we call “crazy awesome experience” is our core value #1. We track and watch NPS scores like hawks. We measure everything related to customer touch points. We are paranoid about it. We have an executive level position whose title is Vice President of Customer Experience.  Are we perfect? Absolutely not. We still have a long way to go. Do we work hard at it – absolutely. Believe it or not, our NPS scores are comparable to some of the well established eCommerce giants that are considered standards for their customer experience. But we want our customers to keep us honest. We do occasionally screw up, but we expect our customers to call us on it so that we can continue to improve what we do.

What do you think about customer experience? Do you agree with my definition? Please share your perspective via comments.

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Image: Courtesy of SmartFinds Internet Marketing

Related Posts:

  1. Apple is all about sales. Customer Service Sucks!
  2. Love the customers who hate you
  3. Passion vs. decibels – How to listen to vociferous customers

Death by a thousand paper cuts ….

In my last post, I discussed the benefits of doing an on-site customer visit where you get to observe customers/prospects use your product or competitive products to get their job done. In my experience doing these visits, I often discover what I call “death by a thousand paper cuts” issues. These issues are essentially annoyances that your users have to put up with when using your product. By itself, each of these issues will sound trivial. If your users call you up to complain about any one of these issues or to propose a solution, you could easily laugh it off as trivial.

But when you are on-site observing these customers, you will notice that these trivial issues quickly add up to cause significant loss of productivity for your users, especially when your users have to encounter them each and every time they use your product. But these to me are the slam dunk features – they are so trivial and hence are usually very easy to fix, but when you fix them you will be able to significantly improve the user experience. Your customers will notice these small improvements because they will reap significant benefits especially if these issues were in the way of a frequently performed task.

I have had many instances where such simple fixes have generated the loudest applause from the audience where as the big feature we were so proud of was met with very muted applause (to our chagrin, if I may add). Have you experienced something similar?

Thoughts?

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Understand the reason for the madness, before you imitate it

Have you had the instance where someone in your product development team says during a product discussion – make it like the Google home page, or make it work like Amazon does it, or see how well IBM’s website does it. If they are doing it, they should be right.

It is easy to fall into this trap – because it is easy to look at someone else’s art work and try to imitate it. But resist the temptation. Take a long breath, step back and ask your selves the following questions:

1) Are my users the same as Google, Amazon, IBM,…..?

2) Are my users trying to achieve the same objectives on my website as the shoppers are on Amazon?

3) Do I have the same web authority as these sites that I am being referenced to? For example, Google does not have to worry about Search Engine Optimization, they are the search engine. They can afford to have a simple white home page with a few minimal links and a large search box. If you or I do this for our home pages, we will not exist as far as search engines are concerned and hence for our prospects and customers.

So before you copy or imitate someone else’s madness, make sure you find out if the madness even applies to you and even if it does,  do you understand the reason behind the madness? Why are they doing what they are doing? Do you really know if it will work for your users? And then after all this, if you think what the Googles or the Amazons or the IBM’s of the world are doing is what will work best for your users, go for it, imitate it (as long as you don’t violate patents and copyright laws – remember the Amazon lawsuit about 1-click ordering?).

All these personal opinions can be put to rest by doing a simple usability testing on these reference sites with a small sample of your users (say 5-10). Or mockup your site using the UI principles shown on these sites and then see if it will work – data will not lie. And people with strong personal opinions often disappear when presented with real user data.

Make your products easy to buy

If your company sells products in different tiers (Basic, Professional, Premium etc.) how easy is it for your prospects to understand the difference in the tiers both in terms of functionality and price? If you put on the hat of a prospect, how easy will it be for you to figure this out. Have you done usability testing to determine if this is easy for a prospect to figure it out? If not, you have created a big stumbling block preventing your prospects from giving you money. Coin Jar

Here is one from my experience last night. I am a Dish Network customer. I am also a Charter Communications customer for my internet and phone. Charter offers a nice bundle if I buy cable, internet and phone – sweet – but this is the good news and the bad news.

I currently have a HD DVR. When I ask them about it, all the options kick in and there is a myriad of options – for HD it is $5/month, for DVR it is $15/month but then they have a promotion where if you buy another couple of options, they give you HD for free and the DVR for $8/month. I had a headache listening to all of this. It was so complicated that after couple of attempts to understand this, I decided not to switch.

Think about this – I initiated the call to find out how to buy – the prospect walked in and said this is my need. You had everything that your prospect needed, but your pricing was so complex to understand, your prospect just walked away. You essentially created a huge stumbling block that you lost the money that the prospect was about to hand over.

Does your product pricing have the same problem? If you do, stop all those feature enhancements you are working on, stop all those marketing campaigns you are working on to create awareness and bring more prospects into the funnel and fix this leaky bucket right now – you are essentially TURNING YOUR BUYERS AWAY.

Image: Courtesy of Triangle.com

Companies ignore social media at their own peril

Last month, I slammed Infusionsoft when they started spamming me with email after I had downloaded an eBook from their website.

The very next day, CEO of Infusionsoft Clate Mask apologized via comments to that blog post. Here was his comment:

“Gopal–very fair point. We should have had the language on there that communicates we will send follow-up messages when you hit submit. My bad. We will change that. I complete agree with you about permission marketing. And I admit that sometimes we get going too fast and make mistakes that result in unwanted messages. But believe me: we do want to send value, build a relationship and become a trusted advisor to folks who want to know how to build their businesses more quickly and effectively. Thanks for your comment. It will cause me to examine things and see if we’ve been too heavy on promotion and light on valuable content to our prospects. BTW, I really appreciate your perspectives and am a little embarassed to be called out by you.”

I was impressed – a CEO was reading what was being said about his company on my blog and he took the time to admit the mistake, apologize and promise that the issue will be fixed. However, I was not going to be convinced until I saw that changes were made.

I went to their website last week to see if anything had changed and nothing had. Then I received another comment from Clate last night about this same issue.

Hi Gopal, I just want to thank you for your “criticism” a few weeks ago about our opt-in and follow-up marketing practices. Your post resulted in a meeting between me and our marketing director. We have already changed a couple of things in order to be more transparent to folks who opt in to my eBook and various white papers. And we are revising some other things we are doing–toning down the frequency of communications, etc. As our company has grown, I think we have gone a little overboard with the amount and frequency of email communications we send. Again, thanks for the nudge in a better direction.

Clate had kept his word, made the easy fix and is now working on fixing his messaging problem.

Think about it – how many CEOs or others in companies are paying attention to what is being said about their products/companies in the social media, how many of them take the time to correspond with this new media, admit that a mistake has been made and then make sure it gets fixed.

I have to applaud Clate for doing this. All of us make mistakes, what takes effort is the willingness to admit that it was wrong and then take the time to fix it. I am not a customer of InfusionSoft, but people who could be their customers may be reading my blog.

Clate – you are way ahead of your CEO peers. I have to say I am impressed.

Folks, if your organization is not paying attention to social media, you are digging a big hole for yourselves. Your existence is threatened and you should be worried.

Why customers walk away?

Kristin Zhivago has an awesome post on her blog titled Gone! The reason customers leave. I would strongly recommend that anyone who touches a customer (sales, tech support, product management, professional services, executives) read it.

I had written last year about how customers are lot more tolerant of a vendor’s mistakes or shortcomings if the vendor keeps them informed. It is nothing but courtesy, professionalism and respect. One of the companies that I respect a whole lot in this regard is CitiCards. Twice in the last 5 years, my credit card has been compromised because of data theft at two retail stores. They proactively called me up, put my account on hold so that no fraudulent charges get made using my credit card. Do I sleep well that they are looking out for me? – oh ya ! Do you think I will ever switch credit card vendors? – oh No! Do you think I will talk great about them and recommend them? – you know the answer to that.

Doing this takes a whole lot of effort and the will to make it happen. Unfortunately companies are busy chasing new dollars, that they forget the adage “Bird in hand is worth two in the bush!”.

Product Management lessons from the latest iPhone debacle

The media (social and real) is abuzz with how Apple botched the launch of the 3G iPhone last Friday. Yes, they could have done it a whole lot better but I don’t think it is going to make much of a dent on the how many of these phones Apple will sell.

Seth Godin in his blog writes about the concept of scarcity that is written around this misstep by Apple and AT&T. It is a very fascinating read and has a lot of lessons for product managers in how creating a product experience and how treating your higher spend customers differently is crucial to eventual success of a product. Apple is likely to get away with this misstep because their product truly has a great product experience and they have the world beating to their door and hence willing to give them a longer leash.

Permission Marketing gone astray – InfusionSoft

Couple of weeks back, I came across this company called InfusionSoft. I signed up to download something that looked interesting to me called “9 proven techniques to double sales”. To do this, I had to fill out the following form.

When you do this, they send you a link via an email to download the white paper. I was fine with it until this point.

Then the trouble started – there is nothing in the above dialog that gives them permission to send me anything other than the above white paper. Now I get daily emails from their CEO Clate Mask. Here are some of the titles of the emails and some of the content in the email.

Email 1: How one incredible number skyrockets your income

…… Just imagine being able to double your sales (even when businesses all around you are falling further and further into debt.) Think how great you’ll feel when customers are begging you to serve them AND you can stop wondering if you’ll be in business next month. ……

Email 2: 7 Magnetic Marketing Secrets To Explode Your Profits

……when you’re in harvesting mode, you’re working smart and scooping up sales left and right. You can spend your time at closings, on the phone with hot leads or out on the golf course because you know your prospects will call YOU when they’re ready to move forward. ….

Email 3: Double your sales with one powerful secret

and on and on it goes.

What? Customers coming begging to me to serve them? Go and play golf because prospects will call you? Am I living on the wrong planet or what?

Do you think I will ever buy anything from InfusionSoft? No, but I sure am writing about them so that I can save others from this experience.

The emails also say this – which I thought was even more hilarious

We value your privacy, we really hate spammers, and we’re not going to sell your info to spammers (or to anyone else). If you really want to read the boring details of the privacy policy, you can read them here.

We Product marketers should take note – Just because we allowed a customer/prospect to download something free from our website, it does NOT give us permission to send them stuff. If we want to engage with them, we need to do it using Permission Marketing, a term coined by Seth Godin. Ask for their permission and then send them useful stuff that will help them get better at what they do. We need to build a trusted relationship with them such that they will hopefully buy something from us in the future. It is not a guarantee, but if we help someone, they are bound to at least invite us to the “purchase” party if we indeed have what they want.

Permission marketing is NOT getting permission from the customer to spam them – this will absolutely kill any chance of getting any future business.

Yes, InfusionSoft does give me a way to unsubscribe from these emails, but it is work I have to do.

Clate, you will not be getting the phone call from me begging you to serve me while you are having a good time playing golf.

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Vista nightmare over the weekend

OK, this post is more about my first and nightmarish experience with Vista than a product management tip.

Over the weekend, my aunt visiting from New York asked me if I could figure out what was wrong with her PC. She said her problem was that she just could not surf to hotmail.com using IE, but could happily get there using Firefox (go figure!!). She could get to msn and then click on My MSN and log into hotmail, but the text of all messages was blank (who would want to read text of emails anyways – after all the from and to and subject lines is all one needs, right?).

I told her that I should be able to easily fix this by uninstalling IE and reinstalling it. Last wise words spoken by me. I figured this was going to be a ten minute job – wrong – thanks to Vista. Found out that you just cannot uninstall IE on Vista – nor could I find what version of IE was installed because trying to do that started giving a never ending script error.

So started googling for solutions – so what do I find – every other Tom, Dick and Harry has run into the same issue – IE7 wants to ask the user if he wants the phishing filter on and a bunch of other settings (runonce.aspx). It is supposed to ask only once, but it has a bug before it gets to ask you. So it thinks it has never asked you and always gives you a blank page.

After 3 hours of trying to grapple with this and trying everything from using restore points (which fails) and editing registry to add two dwords that MS recommends you manually add, I just gave up. I told my aunt to stick with Firefox. She dropped her laptop on her way out – she said it was an accident, but I am not sure if she dropped it in sheer frustration – I would if I were her.

MS wants to discontinue support for XP by Jan 2009 and start shoving Vista down everyone’s throat – they are doing it to consumers now and businesses are next. What a great customer service? I think their slogan now is “Do all evil”

Then I read this article – Vista’s big problem: 92 percent of developers ignoring it – what a surprise?

It is amazing how MS just does not get it anymore. I think Bill Gates was smart once again – he quickly got off this Titanic before it is headed for the iceberg.

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Goto Meeting – Free or not free? – Misleading free trial

The other day I was kinda ticked off that I had to reschedule two customer presentations because Webex just would not work for whatever reason. Webex customer support had all sorts of technical reasons as to why it does not work and what the customer should do (yah, great, it is all user’s fault). It sure turned out to be something on the customer’s end, but Webex gives no clue when it does not work – why and what could the customer or me ask the customer to do.

Having very good experience with GotoMeeting in my past job, I decided to try out their free 30 day trial. It said “FREE’ all over the place and so I started signing up.

Specified my personal information, created a password and then landed on the third page to see that a credit card was required – there was nothing in the earlier steps that told me that this was needed – everything was about this is easy – unlimited – takes only 2 minutes etc.

Then I saw the hyperlink which said “Why do you need my credit card?” Clicking on it told me why they need a credit card – but it is all about them – not me the customer.

I like the first sentence – but the second, I have no idea – if they want to restrict it to one trial per customer, why can they not do it using email accounts. Yes, there will be people who will try to get multiple accounts and try to get more than one trial, but how many – the majority? Or do you want to penalize everyone because there are a few that may be unscrupulous?

So what did I do – I walked away. Interestingly, they found out (I am assuming they are tracking this on their website) and I get this email the very next day.

So what happened to their cost proposition for the free service? They don’t have these costs anymore? They don’t want to restrict it to one free trial per customer?

I understand that there are many vendors that do require a credit card for a free trial – magazine subscriptions, NetFlix, credit card protection services, travel insurance etc – but these are more of transactional or consumer facing applications. Goto Meeting to me is a B2B application, so why not trust your prospects?

Believe me, GotoMeeting is the best web conferencing tool that I have used – it is so easy to use – so what do they have to hide? – I would invite the world to do a drive thru of their awesome product – the hardware costs that they have to bear is nothing more than a marketing expense. I would rather spend on this (you have a much more qualified prospect you could try to convert because you have a great product) as opposed to spending the same money on SEO, ads etc. whose sole purpose is to attract someone to your site – but I am already on your site, way down the funnel and you threw me out.

To me this is an example of poor marketing execution of an awesome product. GotoMeeting, are you listening?

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Product Review – Service Magic rocks

Last week, I had to get a tree cut in the yard and then my garage door broke down with the door bent and the rollers popped out. Not knowing who to call, I checked out ServiceMagic. What an awesome experience that turned out to.

Within minutes, they send me names of three pros rated very high by their customers. I called the pro, got a quote, scheduled the job and got both of these issues taken care of in a hurry. Their customer service is outstanding – they called me to find out how the project was going, they send me thank you notes via email after I had rated the pros – they did not have to do any of this.

This is one of the rare occasions in the recent past where I could say that I have received just an excellent service. We hear all the time about service is being shortchanged by companies due to the current tough economic times, but here is a company that has figured out how to use technology to the hilt to provide such a great service – their website is awesome with easy navigation, customer ratings and reviews of their pros, the results of their 10 point screening etc. They use email communication very well and as a result take many of the pain points involved in finding/hiring a contractor off their customer’s chests. Think about the effort it takes to make sure that the contractors you want to hire have the necessary license, insurance etc. to do the work? All this is done by ServiceMagic for you. Dealing with contractors has never been easy and they seem to have made this easy.

ServiceMagic sets the benchmark against which other service companies should be considered. If you have not used them, I would strongly recommend that you give them a try.

Their success is because they have thought through the entire user experience from the usability of their website through every touch point with the customer either via email or phone. Plus, their service is absolutely free for consumers, they make their money from the pros who get referrals.

Thank you ServiceMagic.

Five guidelines to prioritize feature requests

As a product manager, you are very likely to have more feature requests than what you can put out in a given release. In my case, a good product manager’s job at release planning is figuring out what to eliminate from consideration – you have to make hard decisions – that is what you are paid to do.

Please note that my background is working on products that have mass market appeal and did not have to deal with things like customer funded development – where a customer throws money at you to get a feature that only they will use.

Here are the five guidelines I have used effectively ….

1) How MANY customers will ever USE it?

We held a strong line on this – if the feature was meant just for the selected few (no matter how much money these customers had), we said No to the customer. You may say – no way, it will not work in my case. My reply – have you tried – Have you told your customer No and told him why? – if not try it.

I will give you an example – we had a very well known consumer company in Japan as a customer – they had bought a few licenses but had the promise of buying a whole lot more licenses – they had a lot of money. We visited them in Japan, they visited us here, met with our executives etc. – they tried to push their agenda hard on us and they had all sort of ideas as to how the software needs to work. We questioned them hard to get to the bottom of their underlying problems – why, why, why do you need to do something. They had some great ideas and some that applied only to them – we readily agreed to do the former and rejected the latter with solid business reasons why we won’t do it – not enough customers have the need.

They respected us at the end – their feedback was that we were the first vendor to have grilled them on their requests and were bold enough to turn them down, as opposed to other vendors who were ready to do whatever they wanted. They realized that we were a company that knew what we were doing and our willingness to grill them, told them that we wanted to make sure we were solving their problems the right way.

2) How OFTEN will customers USE it?

Is this something a customer will use once a year, once a month or something they would use everyday. Why does this matter? Remember the phrase “death by thousand cuts” – if something that needs to be used everyday is not supported or is very inefficient to do, it kills user productivity. This may not be something that will make a press release when you launch a new release or in your product demo, but this is something that will get you a standing ovation from your existing customers. Believe me, I have experienced this multiple times where the smallest change scored the highest in customer satisfaction. Stuff such as choosing the right default values, remembering the last used options fall into this category.

Taking how MANY customers would use it and multiplying it by how OFTEN they will use it, you get what I define as Velocity of a new feature.

VELOCITY = How MANY customers will use X How OFTEN they will use

Features with highest velocity should be serious contenders to make into your new release.

3) Will this open up new markets?

It could be something that could be asked by your smallest customer – but it could be this brilliant idea that could change the rules of the game and open up a completely new market for you. You as a product manager need to make this call.

I have been asked in the past if we implemented feature requests only from large customers with lots of licenses – my response always has been – size does not matter, quality of the idea does. This is what product managers get paid to do – take such ideas and make a business out of it.

4) Is this considered table stakes by the market?

There could be features you would need to compete in the market – if you don’t have these basic things, you are not even considered a player. These ones should be obvious if you know your market. For example, pivot tables or charting are considered table stakes for a serious spreadsheet application.

But tread this one with caution – this is where sales can take you for a ride. They will say “we cannot compete because we don’t have this X, Y and Z” and the list could be endless. For those being raised by sales, ask them to put you in touch with customers who would not buy without this feature – then from the customers get to the real problem that is solved by the feature – for all you know, you may have an innovative way to do it, or can come up with one that might change the rules of the game.

5) Is the feature a building block to the real thing?

This could be something determined by R&D (architectural changes) or some other user facing feature that is needed to support the final feature.

If you consistently use these guidelines, you end up making a business case why you want to turn down a feature request – this even works with executives because it is now based on facts and not opinions. After all this, if some higher up overrides your decision, it is not in your hands, but you know you did your analysis.

First experience on a US long distance train

I have been living in the US for the last 18 years and I have never traveled on a train over a long distance. This week, I had to travel to New York and decided to take the Acela Express. What a remarkable experience – I don’t think I will ever fly to New York from Boston.

So what constituted to a great product experience:

1) No security lines

2) Cheap parking – $10 a day compared to $22 a day at Logan plus tolls

3) Parking right outside the station – 2 minute walk compared to Logan’s long walks to terminals plus traffic hassles

4) Awesome, wide comfortable reclining seats

5) On time arrival and departure

6) Cheap taxi ride to the hotel (as opposed to expensive ride from La Guardia) – though we were ripped off by a capitalistic van driver.

7) Quiet car where you are refrained from talking and using the cell phone – I tried the next car and was in midst of so many sales guys chattering over the phone – I quickly made my way to the quiet car and had such a great ride.

Total travel time on the train – 3 hours, 25 minutes compares to probably the same on the flight given how early I need to get to the airport, battle security lines, delays etc.

Plus, above all of this, I contributed to reducing the carbon footprint – hey, I drive a hybrid too.

Truly, a great product experience.

Product Integration – Usability killer?

I used to own (until it was stolen:-( ) a Magellan Roadmate 700 series portable GPS system. The system was so simple to use – it did one thing – GPS and it did it very well. The controls were very easy to use and programming it for a trip was a breeze.

Magellan Roadmate GPS

On my new Toyota Camry, I now have the built-in navigation system.

The system controls not only the GPS, but also my bluetooth telephone via speed dial, phonebook etc, the four disc CD changer and a bunch of other things. Operating it is probably as complicated as a 747 cockpit – you have so many options and one wrong click you end up starting over. The other day my wife was going to Boston for dinner. If she had followed the GPS, she would have taken the longest route possible and got there an hour and a half later for what normally takes 45 minutes.

So what has probably happened here – Toyota had to create this one product that integrates the GPS, CD changer, the blue tooth telephone, the trip information and the other 15 things I have not discovered yet. It probably started as one component, which then had to be reworked to integrate the second component and so on. When everything was said and done, we have what I get to use now. It sure does meet all product functionality requirements that it was set to achieve, but it falls well short of usability requriements – thanks to product integrations. Do your products suffer from this same problem?

Love the customers who hate you

I have been a big proponent of online communities and social media – I have written at least two blog posts on this. So when the latest Business Week arrived with the main section titled “Consumer vigilantes” I could not put it down. The most interesting article among many dealing with social media was titled Love the customers who hate you. This is a must read. The net net of the article is captured in “…… Now don’t get mad at these people. Instead, help them get even with you. These angry customers are doing you a great favor. They care enough about your product or service to tell you exactly what went wrong. Other customers may just desert you and head to the competition. But these are telling you what to fix. Listen to them. Help them. Respond to them. Ask their advice—and they’ll give it to you.” – Enjoy reading.

Passion vs. decibels – How to manage vociferous customers

In my product management career, I have always had some users who were more vociferous than most of the others. Their decibel level when they asked for new enhancements or yelled at you for the bugs in the software was orders of magnitude higher than majority of the users. The vast majority of these users were loud because they cared, they were passionate about your product. Hence, don’t discount these users – listen to them, allow them to vent and take action to fix their problems if appropriate.

However, you as a product manager need to do a fine balancing act you – some of the feature requests from these vociferous users could be for functionality that applies just to them, because of what they use your product for or the unique way in which they do a common task. You have to listen to them, but also be willing to say No with a justifiable reason. All of us ask for more, but not everyone expects to get everything they ask for (if you don’t ask, you don’t get – so there is not much downside to asking). As long as you tell them why you would not do something, they will understand – getting back to them tells them you care.

I remember an instance where I was reading through the enhancement requests we had received when I came across a tirade from a user. It was an email bomb filled with expletives how our product sucked and how he thought we were all a bunch of idiots. I picked up the phone and called the user. I introduced myself and told him that I was calling him about the enhancement request he had send in. First thing he said was a sincere apology for having writing such a tirade (I don’t know if he thought I was going to sue him) and said he was having a bad day and the software was not working the way he wanted to get his job done. I asked him not to be apologetic and asked him to help me understand the deficiency in the software. We spend a good 20 minutes on the phone understanding the issue.

Guess what likely happened after the call – I created a passionate user for our product because I took time to read what he had written (however unpleasant),  call him and discuss the issue to see how we could improve our product so that he can be successful with what he does. Do you think he would have shared this experience with his colleagues or other users in his community? I absolutely think he would have. What happens if he encounters someone else who has a similar gripe – he is going to tell them we care and to talk to us. I created another big proponent who is going to spread the word about our product and about us as a company.

Creating passionate users and listening to them is one of the most important parts of your job as a product manager. After all, the answer is not in the building – it is very important for all of us to get out of our busy schedule of internal meetings and take the time to talk to real users.  After all, they are the ones who buy our product.

Help your customers buy …

I bought a new car last week. I was very clear what I needed – a Toyota Camry Hybrid and knew the exact options I needed. I did all my research on the web in reading user generated reviews, dealer invoice prices and so on. After spending about 3 hours doing all this, I was ready to buy. I wanted the car in a day because my previous car was giving me trouble.

I started making phone calls to Toyota dealers. I told them right upfront:

1) Here is the exact car I need – color, options etc.

2) I don’t have time to haggle

3) I am shopping around calling dealers

4) I am looking to buy tomorrow.

The sales person at the three dealers I called listened and they told me their best price and they had the car – they asked me if I would like to come in to test drive the car – no pressure, here is what you need, here is what we want – none of the traditional pressure tactics that auto dealers are well known for.

I ended up buying the car from Bernardi Toyota because they not only had the lowest  price but they also worked with me respecting my intelligence to come up with a win-win situation regarding my trade in. So what two lessons did I learn as a product manager from this personal experience?

1) Get real users to write reviews about your product. This is much more reliable than what you as a vendor can put out there. I went to the Toyota website only to look at the specs, colors, options etc. I did all my research on sites such as edmunds.com. Organizations always worry about user reviews because they fear bad things will be said about their products and that the competition will get hold off these reviews. Think about it, by promoting candid feedback from your user base, you are actually raising the bar for your competition. Everyone has skeletons in their closets – you are forcing the competition’s hand to do the same. My advice – forget about the competition – be more concerned about what your customers have to say – if they have bad things to say, you should be the first one to know because you are in a position to fix the problem. No matter what you put out, you cannot satisfy everyone – there will be someone who will say something bad about your product. If all you get are bad reviews about your product and you choose to ignore it, you are only buying time before the inevitable happens.

2) Teach your sales people to listen to the customer’s needs and to respect the customer as an intelligent human being. Help the customers buy what they want rather than trying to sell to them. We all love to buy and don’t want to be sold to.

Based on this very positive experience, I recommended Bernardi Toyota to my friend who was also looking to buy a new car and he is buying from them today. “Word of mouth” pays.

Free products like gmail – do users have a say?

For the last week, gmail has just stopped working for me. Boy, it has not been fun, being locked out of your personal emails. I also use google docs and the story is no different here – I am locked out of my documents as well. I have tried everything that Google has recommended on their discussion groups but to no avail. Initially I thought the problem appeared to be related to accessing gmail from web browsers on a Mac but now I am finding that this problem exists on Windows as well – web browser does not matter. Speculation on discussion groups is that this was caused by Google’s latest update. I have seen reports of this issue as early as couple of months back and to this date, there has not been a fix?

This raises some important questions about free products: Because it is free, does that mean users do not have much say – after all beggars cannot be choosers, they say. There is no customer support number to talk to a human, you can send an email to google, but it says there will be no response from them. All this from a company who has grandiose plans to replace archrival Microsoft from its stronghold position in business apps? I think Google is going through growing pains of delivering its once well known Saas solutions of gmail.

I was one of those users who did not care about ads pasted within my email, but I cannot live without my personal email. Is this what we get for using free products? Do we have any say or are we left on our own?

Customer Service Experience

How often have you called customer service at credit card companies, airlines, medical benefits and you have been asked to enter information such as your credit card number, your zip code, your social security number, your frequent flyer number etc. and then finally when you get to a live person, the first question is what is your XXXX – the same information that you had entered using the keypad …. Huh!!

Do these folks ever try out their own systems to check out the customer experience? Or is just a tactic to balance the call volume – benefit for them and none for the customer.

BTW, if you want to spare yourselves of this torture, check out gethuman.com

How useful are the error messages?

Have you got error messages when using applications that have made you wonder whether a real person wrote these messages? It has happened to me numerous times. The best error message I have ever seen is when Pro/PDM, a CAD data management product from PTC once crashed with the error message – “Gastronomic error occurred, exiting” – I am not making this up – this was in 1996.

Though software development has made great strides since then, the usefulness of error messages have not changed that much. I was visiting one of the websites today (I cannot reveal the site name), when this information message caught my attention.

error-message.jpg

I was quite happy to notice that they wanted to improve my shopping experience, but look at the message. I am left to figure out when the site would be down. What would it have taken to say the exact date and time when the site would be down – nothing. But I speculate that some web developer discovered a cute little function that could update the number of hours and minutes to shutdown real time and he/she would have said”Wow, cool”. If the person who put this message together had stopped to think for one second whether the message provided the useful information he/she wanted to convey (the information that his/her customers could process), he/she very likely would have changed the message.

Think about all the information you put out there for your users and think about how much of it would make sense to them. Your users don’t have your product as the center of their universe, they are using it as a tool to get their real job done. Do all the messages that your product puts out help them get their job done? – that is the only benchmark that matters.

It is up to us as Product Managers to emphasize to our documentation/development teams that error/informational messages put out by the product has a significant enough influence on usability and user perception of your product that enough attention should be put in writing user friendly messages (and not one that makes great sense to developers alone).

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