Tuesday, March 1, 2011

When customers have a voice: 3 solution providers who listen well

You probably all have friends out there that send you jokes and other amusing (or not) trivia by email. Some will be selective. Some will not… sort of like two of my cousin who seems to send me everything that comes into her Inbox. The problem with these kind of distribution lists is that there is no way to unsubscribe without hurting someone’s feelings. So the delete button gets a lot of use on my keyboard.
But for the ones that are selective, sometimes there is some useful information. Like just this morning I learned that “a paraprosdokian is a figure of speech in which the latter part of a sentence or phrase is surprising or unexpected in a way that causes the reader or listener to reframe or reinterpret the first part. It is frequently used for humorous or dramatic effect, sometimes producing an anticlimax. For this reason, it is extremely popular among comedians and satirists.” So the first thing I did was forward it to my friend who is also a stand-up comedian. I know he is always looking for material.
But apart from the obvious value to my comic friend, I did find some of these paraprosdokians applicable to the art of developing software solutions. I say “art” purposely. While developing these solutions may be (computer) science, the process of deciding on a product roadmap is far less objective.
For example:
” To be sure of hitting the target, shoot first and call whatever you hit the target.”
This is what happens when the developers (I use the term loosely) make all the product decisions while never venturing out into the real world.
The corollary… “The voices in my head may not be real, but they have some good ideas!”
This is what happens when the developers make all the product decisions while never venturing out of their own space at all.
The result, when the first two are ignored… “You do not need a parachute to skydive. You only need a parachute to skydive twice.”
So the lesson to be learned and applied to the art of developing the roadmap of an enterprise business system is pretty simple:  Listen to your customers. There are 3 developers of enterprise business systems that come immediately to mind here (caveat - I don’t mean to say of course that there are no other solution providers with a particular focus on the customer):
Plex Systems:  You might have heard me say this before, but the reason Plex began offering a SaaS deployment model for ERP long before it was “hot” was because Plex’s founder was an advocate and a pioneer of rapid application development and he was looking for a way to deliver new enhancements at an equally rapid pace. Last year I attended Tom Mackey’s (Plex’s EVP of Sales) worldwide sales meeting. As I watched one of the Plex developers demo something the team was in the process of developing specifically for a large customer and as I learned how long it took the team to create the enhancement (all “customizations” developed by Plex are productized as opt-in features) it struck me that they had gotten this far in the time it might have taken other development teams to tell the sales team why they couldn’t or shouldn’t do it. As this realization dawned on me I heard their head of development say that his team didn’t develop any functionality speculatively. All features and functions were developed by request of a customer or a prospect.
Because Plex was developing features and functions so rapidly there was a time when they were having difficulty keeping up with the documentation. The customers brought this to the attention of management at the Plex user conference a couple years back, but they also brought a solution. Why not have the customers using these enhancements contribute to the documentation, wiki-style? Because these customers were so actively engaged with the company and the development process, this worked out quite well.
Now, there is one downside to this approach. You can’t enter a brand new market this way. But you can expand the boundaries of the markets that you already play in. And that is exactly what Plex has done. Early on, based on its proximity to Detroit, its business was largely in the automotive market. But as it began to expand beyond the state of Michigan, it found many of the features and functions required by other industries were either already built in or very close. For example the product already satisfied the requirements of compliance and traceability in automotive and these were easily adapted to packaged foods. And so on….
Sage Software: Over the past decade, much of Sage’s growth has been by acquisition. However, the second half of 2010 saw a resurgence in organic growth. This has been as a result of a combination of growth by acquiring new customers with an expanded range of offers and increasing share of customer spend through support and cross-selling. In 2010 Sage added 250,000 new customers, half of them here in North America. Now of course, not all of these were ERP customers, but enterprise business systems dominated. And there was also significant growth in spend from existing customers, largely through increased web offerings and a rapidly growing set of connected services – web-based and mobile services that connect to existing products.
Much of this approach resulted from an aggressive campaign to visit and listen to existing customers, which has been a primary focus of the management team. While a new focus, Sage has seen it paying dividends. For example, Sage has seen a growing interest from ERP customers in payment services. By satisfying this need, Sage also benefits since by adding these payment services, it can nearly double customer spend.
Syspro is the third enterprise business system provider that comes to mind when I think of close customer relationships. Syspro reports some of the highest customer retention rates in the industry and largely attributes them to personal one-to-one relationships with its customers, with a heavy emphasis on “personal.” Perhaps it is the South African heritage of the company, but execs like Joey Benedretti (president of Syspro North America) take any issue with a customer very personally. Just go out to their website and search on “awards” and you will see a plethora of nominations and wins. Probably the most telling of these awards in terms of customer focus is the Stevie Award. SYSPRO 6.1, the newest release of SYSPRO ERP software, was presented with a People's Choice Stevie Award for Favorite New End User Software Product at the 2010 American Business Awards last June. SYSPRO 6.1 included over 1,500 new customer-requested features and functions plus ease-of-use enhancements including dashboards, workflow services and process modeling and a new user interface that combines personalization and power-tailoring options.
All three of these solution providers develop a target with purpose and customer focus, listening to the voices of their customers which provide the perfect canopy to float development efforts.

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