As organizations around the world accelerate their digital transformations, becoming closely aligned with customers’ technology needs has never been more important. It’s no longer enough to produce innovative products; technology solutions must be driven by customer input right from the start. Companies that ignore opportunities to formulate customer communities that drive technology development do so at their own peril.
I should know; I made a similar mistake once in my career. My team created a new mobile platform based on an already existing and popular solution. We assumed success was baked in because of how much customers used and liked the previous product on desktops. We were wrong. We didn’t take into account how customers would use the same product from a mobile device — and we neglected to ask them first. As such, we failed to develop a product that met their needs and expectations.
That experience taught me a lesson on the value of making customers part of the product development journey. We can sometimes forget that we don’t really make solutions because they’re interesting or innovative; those are features, but they’re not the point. We make solutions to meet customers’ requirements, which are always evolving and unique. In this customer-centric environment, doesn’t it make sense to give those customers the chance to co-create the solutions being built for them?
I’ve found one of the best ways to do this is to create communities of customers that serve as an extension of your product development and marketing efforts. You may be familiar with the concept. Many organizations have created a customer pilot program or customer advisory committee. But a strategy is needed to handpick the right customers to provide input, as well as logistical planning for how to give those customers hands-on access to your solutions, so that you can get honest, user-sourced feedback about your solutions.
Let’s dive into some strategies you can employ to create communities to help you develop solutions that meet your customers’ expectations.
Select the right customers
Aim for a diverse mix of clients — both large and small. Prioritize your list based on usage, with “super users” getting first preference. These may not be your biggest or most recognizable customers. They may be smaller organizations that do not have many users, but they may be loyal customers who use your solutions every day.
There are other factors to consider. Geographical location may play into your decision, for example. Customer tenure may be another consideration, as well as how customers use technologies. For instance, if you’re considering a new mobile app, it might be worthwhile to involve customers who regularly use your solutions on mobile devices. And be sure to consider customers who have recently moved to your products from competitors’ technologies or who hail from different industries. They can give you valuable outside perspectives.
Start from the beginning
Once you’ve got your customers in place, get them involved in the product development process before it truly begins. Let them have a say in the overall direction of the solution. Ask them about what they want to accomplish and what type of solution would help them meet these requirements. Have them share their daily experiences, including the things that impact their jobs (and especially the things that impede their successes). Really take the time to probe: What type of features would they like to see? How will they be using the solution? Who will be using it?
In short, make them a partner in co-creating the value of your solution. Don’t get started on the product development journey without them right by your side.
Create a hands-on experience
Once development is underway, give your customers hands-on access to the solution. This can be virtual or onsite (when it’s safe to do so), either in your office or, preferably, at the customers’ locations. Hosting demos and labs at customer sites allows you to see their environment firsthand. This could give you new ideas that you may not have otherwise considered.
Use your customers’ feedback to make changes to the product. Add new features and subtract unnecessary ones. Adjust the user interface accordingly. Do whatever you can to solve their challenges.
Make sure your technical teams are privy to these conversations so they’re not creating their solutions in a vacuum. It’s important for developers to understand how to align the products they’re creating with customers’ business needs. Getting them in touch with customers will increase their solutions’ odds of success.
Continue the conversations
The day your solution becomes available is only the beginning of the conversations you should have with your customers. Continue to meet with them and talk to them about what they like about the product and what can be improved. Check-in regularly — at least once a quarter — to ensure that the solution continues to meet their needs.
Keep the conversation going throughout your entire customer community through conferences, online forums, and social media. For example, my company hosts an annual user conference, where we invite customers to gather and share their experiences. It’s a great opportunity for them to tell stories, offer advice, and learn from each other.
If you do not involve customers in your product development efforts, you run the risk of those efforts meeting a dead end when they come to market. Don’t let that happen. Build communities to create longer, stronger, and deeper customer relationships that allow you to develop solutions that will meet their needs throughout the lifecycle of your products.