Monday, May 19, 2014

Customer Advisory Boards

You can't just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they'll want something new.” So said the most iconic leader in the IT industry and stuck to this philosophy as his company built some of the most vied for products; the success that followed remains unparalleled though the bull run has slowed down a bit. Everyone wondered exasperatedly on how they can replicate this model as it is contrary to conventional wisdom and what they were taught in B-school.

Until not too long ago the software industry churned out products with features and functionality based on internal discussions on what the customer may need or in some cases based on what their initial customers asked for. With generic solutions not fulfilling the expanding needs, over time they started hiring industry domain experts to create vertically aligned solutions. This did address the gap partly for a while and then customers started demanding better aligned solutions for their specific problems and opportunities.

Some companies recognized the need early and started creating Customer Advisory Boards (CAB) with CIOs of their large customers to participate in the product roadmap. This was extended to include some of the innovative adopters of their solutions though they may not have been high revenue customers but brought value to the discussion. The ensuing engagement, discussion and debate influenced the prioritization of new features and in some cases the positioning of their solutions resulting in a win-win situation.

Some of the services vendors took the cue and hired from the industry to strengthen their industry practices; consulting companies followed suite thereby changing the discussion with their customers. They determined that the need was to embed the resources internally and not limit to an advisory role. Now the software industry is going through a transition with even mid-sized companies thinking of CAB to gain the benefit of customer connect and better alignment of their product features and evolution to what the industry wants.

Interestingly hardware manufacturers have remained disconnected; they continue to launch products with the philosophy of the icon attributed with the famous quote. Past practice of customer focus groups has largely been discarded by marketing teams. Faster processors, bigger, brighter and higher resolution screens; consumers love it and they do more of the same. Then they have attempted to push the same products to enterprise customers and wondered why it is not gaining traction the way consumers are lapping them up.

CIOs are not excited; what else do you want has been the lament ? Over the years the clear message from many CIOs to the IT industry enamored by all things mobile (phones, tablets, and applications) has been that the faster, better, cheaper does not connect with enterprise use cases. Enterprises need manageability, serviceability backed by service levels, and reasonable (measured in years not months) longevity. Consumer devices require additional investments to make them work in our environments.

Consumer applications and games are great; couple of apps on the app store for some customers or pilots on industry specific use cases does not make you an enterprise ready development partner. We don’t want to explain everything from the basics to your team; how are you going to fill in the gap between what we say and what your team understands. Do some homework and more than anything else listen before you start crafting solutions; you have an advantage over your big competitors, use it well.

The question is then, is CAB the way to go for companies who want better traction of their solutions or services in the enterprise space ? It is a model that may work for the larger IT companies; how does a smaller outfit get the benefit of the experience ? In “Scaling Startups” I had referred to a mentoring model and role that CIOs can play; maybe it is time for IT companies to embrace CIOs to help them forge ahead. What is important is the change in mindset and philosophy with internal agreement on the new way of working. I hope IT companies understand this sooner than later.

As a CIO, are you up to the game ?

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