The Customer Wants To Speak With You. Why Cover Your Ears?

Speaking of oracles—the ways in which we recognize problems…

I’m on the mailing list for a company whose product I purchased a while ago. The other day, I received a mailing signed by the product marketing manager for that company. The topic of the mailing is a potential use for the product, but the product doesn’t support that purpose very well at all. In fact, I’ve often wanted to use the product for that purpose, but I’ve been stymied every time. The most recent upgrade of the product doesn’t support my task any better than the last version did. I’ve been so frustrated that I’ve been thinking of writing an email to the company, so this mailing ought to provide me with an easy opportunity to reply. Alas, the reply-to address is “no_reply@[that_company].com”. There are some links in the email, but they’re to blog posts and to the company’s main Web page. From experience, I know that I’ll have to go through extra effort to make contact with an actual person. In this mail signed by the product marketing manager, there’s no “contact me” or even “contact us” link or address by which I could send an email anywhere in the text. The company is jammed on Transmit, with no time for Receive. Actually, there is one email link: the one that allows you to unsubscribe from the mailing list. Now I’m tempted.

A lesson here for marketers: your customers are a primary source of information about your product and your company. Make it easy for them to send you that information, as Mark Federman suggests here. One of Mark’s important points is that if you make it easy for them to talk to you, your customers might complain—but they’ll also tell you about who’s doing a great job for you, and about what your company is doing right. Never make it hard for customers to send feedback to you, unless perhaps you want Seth Godin to make fun of you on his blog.

A lesson here for testers: try subscribing to your company’s mailing lists. If you do, there’s a good chance you’ll find out all kinds of stuff:

  • Bugs or issues in your company’s mailing, like the ones I’ve identified here.
  • If those bugs or issues gets fixed, fantastic information about bugs in the product.
  • Rich sources of claims about your product–claims that can be tested, or used as oracles.
  • Information on novel uses that customers have found for your product.
  • Information about how marketers think your product might be used–and what they’ve missed.

I’ve mentioned The Fundamental Regulator Paradox in these pages before (here and here). The basic idea is that stable systems have a kind of immune system that rejects incursions or even information from the outside, in order to prevent the system from being destabilized. But, as the paradox goes, things from the outside are the primary source of information on the surrounding environment and on things that might destabilize the system. Thus the better the system defends itself against information from the outside, the less it knows about what’s going on around it, the less adaptable it becomes, and the more vulnerable it is to damage when things change.

The product manager for this company is probably a very busy person, and it’s a big enough company that he might not want his main inbox flooded with messages from customers. That’s fine: set up another inbox, and have people from the marketing and support teams monitor it. And respond. At very least, provide help for the customers who are stuck, and thank others for the suggestions they will inevitably provide. Instead of thinking of customers as simply purchasers or users, think of them as important sources of ideas for your design and development teams; partners.

Also, for testers and marketers alike: treat social media as another source of outside information. Pradeep Soundararajan and his team at Moolya regularly astonish prospective clients by reporting on serious problems in their products long before Moolya has been hired. “How do you know about that?” say the execs. “WE didn’t know about that!” Pradeep’s answer: Moolya’s people spend some time reading Twitter. And Facebook. And the company’s own user forums. In such cases, some of the company’s internal employees probably know about those problems, too, but the managers and executives don’t keep the channels open, so messages from below go nowhere. How many times have you tried to give feedback to a customer service rep or field technician, only to be told, “You should contact head office yourself; they never listen to us.”

Marketing, management, and software development aren’t only about advertisements and analysis and algorithms; they’re about relationships between people. Make it easy for people to talk to you, listen, and you’ll hear some important things.

4 replies to “The Customer Wants To Speak With You. Why Cover Your Ears?”

  1. We are so busy being busy doing every day work that we seem to forget the very purpose of the product we are developing and testing. You are right. We should make it easy to receive feedback so that we know if we really solved the problem or a problem.


  2. Hey Michael,

    First, thank you for the great talk today during KWSQA and answering a few of my questions after the session concluded.

    Michael replies: Thanks for the kind words. Good to talk to you, and thank you for the thoughful questions.

    I found this particular blog post interesting as we have this exact same problem in our company. By no means are we large but we act like we are and perhaps this stymies useful feedback. We dont have a blogsphere or social media connection so that part of the recommendation isnt applicable for us (as of yet).

    You don’t have a formal social media connection. And, as you say, yet.

    However, it is frustrating for me to find continuously that development, (us as testers) and even the PMs often dont know who the ‘customer’ is. In other words, how will they use it when and for how long? What is it expected to accomplish and does it accomplish those things? How can I more readily inject myself into the process to understand the customer? what would you suggest?

    Michael replies: I’ll put suggestions in the form of questions. Over the years, I’ve been able to provide positive answers to all of these things here but one.

    • Do you know any customers personally?
    • Have you ever worked in technical support? Could you arrange things such that you (and, ideally, other members of the product team) spent some time on the phones or live chat occasionally, either formally or informally?
    • Does your company host an online support forum, where customers are invited to leave feedback? Is there space for you to converse with them there, again either formally or informally?
    • Are there other forums, not hosted by your company, in which people might be inclined to talk about your product or service? What about competitors’ products? How about Twitter? Facebook?
    • Are there trade shows where your product gets displayed to customers? Again, what about competitors’ products?
    • Are there user groups or communities where people who might use your (competitors’) product would gather? Could you offer to give a talk at a meeting or conference? Could you offer help? Sponsorship?/li>
    • Do you have an outside beta or pre-release program?
    • Do you know people in customer service? Sales? Marketing? Would they be able to introduce you to customers?
    • Do people inside your organization use your product? Do they use it for production work? If they don’t, could they?
    • Does any aspect of your product involve some technical standard, such that you could participate in the development of the standard? (I didn’t do this, but people from my company did.)

    As Jerry Weinberg, decisions about quality start with figuring out whose values matter, and customers are surely on the list. I must say I’m curious as to how the development group intends to develop relevant products or services without a deep understanding customers are, and what matters to them.


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