I’m writing this blog from Calgary, Canada where I’ll be speaking at “Azure Hybrid Integration Day” along with fellow MVP’s. This is my first time at Calgary. When the opportunity came few months ago, I decided to spend few additional days here to meet with few of our long term customers. Calgary is well known for Energy, Oil and Gas industries, and we have few customers in this area. I arranged to meet up with two of the biggest energy companies in the region – FortisAlberta and Transalta. FortisAlberta is a very special customer for us since they were our 3rd customer who brought the product back in 2011 and are happily using it till date. They are also planning to upgrade to our newest version soon.
Seeing real people use your product in real time is fascinating. You’ll be pleasantly surprised to see how you are changing the lives of many people and making their lives easy every day. You cannot get any better inspiration and motivation than this. You can read tons of business/motivational books, but nothing beats seeing your own product in action in real world.
You can sit in a closed office and build your software all year long. But if you don’t know how real people are using your product, then you don’t have a clue.
Getting Real Feedback
You may have 100 features in the product, you may have built a feature that was technically so complex. But when you start speaking to people who use your product in their daily lives, you’ll be blown away by seeing how some little/trivial things in your solution is making their life easy.
One of feedback I received during the conversation was on a screen where the user queries for data and in the result section, there is lot of wasted white space. From a product owner perspective, the screen looks beautiful with lot of white spaces and a clean look. But from someone using that screen on a daily basis, the feedback was “We deal with lot of data on a daily basis, the more you show us is better for us. Get rid of the space here, here and here and I’ll be able to see 20 more records in the same page….” You are never going to assume this unless you see how people use this particular screen in action.
You’ll Spot the Weaknesses in the Product
This is very important. Most of the time your focus is going to be on building new features/versions and improving the product. But you would completely forget some of the weak areas in the product that you have built few years ago. In our case, we had something called “Process Monitoring’, which was built during the initial days of BizTalk360. Later, we replaced that functionality with something super powerful called “Data Monitoring”. But the mistake we have done here is we never removed the old one and we completely forgot about it.
While speaking to the customer, the conversation went like this
Craig (Customer): “What is the difference between them, when to use what..”
Saravana: “Oh! you don’t need to use the Process monitoring. It’s out dated; instead use Data Monitoring”
Craig (Customer): “Then why do you have it in the product….I thought they are solving different problems..”
Now you understand the problem. Just because you didn’t remove that less useful feature from the product, the customers are continuing to use that feature and not taking advantage of the superior feature you have built.
Your Product Alone Is Not Just the Software
Lot of times, you are overwhelmed and obsessive about adding more and more features to the product and pay little attention to surrounding things like documentation. It’s a common problem in any software business – whether you are a startup or when you are building your own applications within an enterprise – the documentation will take a back seat. In our case, we normally had the practice to ship the product first and then our documentation team will be covering all the topics for the next few weeks/months. It’s not a bad idea to do it this way because you don’t want to hold your product release for longer. But the problem I’ve spotted speaking to the customer is that “We forgot to tell the customers we have updated the documentation for the particular release”.
We were discussing about a particular feature called “ESB Data Monitoring” and the customer said I’ve read all your documentation on this and I couldn’t figure out how to use this feature. I told the customer, “I’m pretty sure we have an extensive documentation for this, let’s take a look”. Later when we opened our documentation portal, the customer was able to see really good coverage and was pleasantly surprised.
So a lesson learnt – notify the customer periodically on things that will improve their lives. In this case, there is a simple action point. Once a month or so, send a customer email summarizing all the documentation improvements we have made.
Little Improvements Will Result in Big Impact
This is another one I’ve learnt after the customer visit – how a simple fix can save hours of work for your customers. In BizTalk360, we have this concept called “Alarms for Monitoring”. Customers will have few different alarms to monitor various parts of their BizTalk environment. At the moment, if the customer needs to check whether the alarms are healthy or not, he/she needs to choose each one of them to check the status. It’s fine if you have handful of them. But in this case, the customer was having some 30+ alarms and it’s not feasible to do it manually.
We can easily fix this problem with not more than 1 or 2 days effort by simply creating a single screen that displays the health of each alarm. I can imagine the positive experience that it will have not only for this customer, but for 100’s of our other customers. We would have never learnt this, if I hadn’t visited them personally.
There are lot of other little things I’ve picked up during the conversation. I’m of kind of blown away to see the respect you get when you meet the customers. On both the customer visits, their top IT person (VP of IT, Head of IT) came and spent few minutes with me and thanked me for visiting their premises.
You may be doing business in a B2B big enterprise market, but at end of the day it’s simply people to people communication. The lesson for me is, you will build up trust and loyalty with your customers, if you can do more of these visits.