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Are You Your Own Worst Enemy?

Or is it someone you work with (and trust)?

In building, marketing and selling software, the biggest enemy isn't the competition.  Or "rivals" at work.

Characteristics of The Enemy
Your biggest enemies are smart - sometimes blindingly smart.  They're confident, and convincing.  And incredibly dangerous - because you trust them, and you think they're helping you succeed.  They may not be guiding your boat right into the rocks, but they're probably not taking you where you need to be.  And the difference between survival, success, and phenomenal success can come down to very slight variances in navigation over time.

Who Is the Enemy?
In most cases, your biggest enemies are YOU - and the people you trust at work to provide you with the most important information of all - an understanding of the buyers of your product.  And they hurt you at the most critical moments - when you're making strategic decisions with big ramifications.

"Knowledge"? That's Not Knowledge
Here's the typical situation - at any particular software company, a bunch of people think they know everything about "the customer".  They think this for any number of reasons (all of which are wrong):

1)      They've read every research report out there and spoken to all the expensive analysts

2)      They've sold the software to a number of customers

3)      They've supported the customers

4)      They've implemented the product at a bunch of customer sites

5)      They used to be a customer, or used to work in a "target market" of interest to your company

6)      They built/designed the software, so they know what it can do

7)      They've worked at the company forever

8)      They used to work for a competitor or know the competitive landscape really well

9)      Something worked in the past at some other company

10)   They are "in charge" and have an important title.

I Don't Care What You Think (and neither should you)
I saw a pretty snarky coffee mug for sale on pragmaticmarketing.com (an excellent site, by the way) the other day.  It was borderline offensive, but none-the-less true.  It said "Your opinion, although interesting, is irrelevant".

A nicer and more diplomatic way to put it would be "the only things that count are what the (target) customers for your product think, want, and are willing to spend money for". But that wouldn't sell many coffee mugs.

Knowledge Is Your Enemy(?)
So many people at every company have an opinion on what the "target customer" thinks or wants.  It's pretty unusual for anyone to actually know.  When they do know something, it's usually a dreadfully skewed, imbalanced view.  For example, the CEO who speaks with lots of CIOs and VPs.  The consultant who implements solutions on-site.

People would be better off with NO customer knowledge at all than to have skewed and imbalanced viewpoints.  Why? Because people with no opinion are almost always open-minded.  Give someone just enough knowledge to form an opinion, and they're no longer willing to admit that they "don't know".

Opinions vs. Knowledge: The Difference
How do you sort out whether someone is really the voice of the customer, or simply sharing some potentially damaging opinion that has no real basis in reality?

  • When was the last time those "customer experts" actually really spoke with reasonable number of "representative target customers"? I don't mean 60 second trade-show interactions.
  • Were those interactions with the economic buyer? The user? The executive? The technical buyer? Balanced interaction is important.
  • Were those interactions done with a specific purpose in mind that would have prejudiced the perspective (for example, trying to close a deal, trying to fix a problem)? Or was the purpose of the interaction truly to "get to know the target customer"?
  • Are the interactions only with customers who decided to buy your product? Or are they also with those who chose a competitor's product? Or decided to build their own solution?
  • What about interactions with "target customers" who have never contacted you at all? Perhaps all you are doing is the equivalent of talking to people who like and buy anchovy pizza - missing out on the biggest opportunities out there.
  • How long has it been since the "industry expert" was actually in the industry?
  • How long since the "former customer" was a customer? Was the former customer economic/user/technical/executive buyer all wrapped into one?

If you're looking to make strategic decisions for your company - whether it's "should we build a new product" or "who do we sell to" or "how are we going to increase sales of a product" or "what does the future of our product look like", the only opinion that counts is that of the people and companies out there who will potentially be writing you big checks.

The Enemy Revealed
If you hear the words "I think the customer wants..." or "in my opinion the customer thinks..." as an answer to a business-critical question - those are the words of the enemy, unless immediately followed by the words "I'm going to pick up the phone and validate that".

The ally says "I know the customer wants" or "the customer definitely thinks..."  The ally knows this because they've made it their business to know.  And when you ask "how do you know that??", you get a good answer.

I've seen far too many products crash and burn because they were based on opinions or on consensus of opinions about what the customer wants and thinks.  Only to find out that it wasn't solving the right problem, wasn't solving a critical enough (and valuable enough) problem, wasn't targeted at the right market, wasn't being sold to the right people, wasn't positioned the right way and on and on.  The world is chock full of the wreckage of software companies and software initiatives that fell victim to "in my opinion".

Banishing the Enemy
The solution to this is pretty clear.  The payoff is huge.  The downside of NOT doing it is equally huge.

  1. Know the difference between a wild-ass guess and knowledge and don't tolerate wild-ass guesses, as they are dangerous.
  2. Don't let people fool themselves into thinking they "know the customer" when they only know part of a customer.
  3. Hold certain people accountable for REALLY KNOWING THE CUSTOMER.  That needs to be part of their job.  Get out there.  Meet with them. Interact.
  4. Don't get all prideful. You can't know everything from all perspectives all the time. Nobody is that smart. Don't be afraid to "make your best guess" and then "validate and improve" afterwards.

More Stories By Hollis Tibbetts

Hollis Tibbetts, or @SoftwareHollis as his 50,000+ followers know him on Twitter, is listed on various “top 100 expert lists” for a variety of topics – ranging from Cloud to Technology Marketing, Hollis is by day Evangelist & Software Technology Director at Dell Software. By night and weekends he is a commentator, speaker and all-round communicator about Software, Data and Cloud in their myriad aspects. You can also reach Hollis on LinkedIn – linkedin.com/in/SoftwareHollis. His latest online venture is OnlineBackupNews - a free reference site to help organizations protect their data, applications and systems from threats. Every year IT Downtime Costs $26.5 Billion In Lost Revenue. Even with such high costs, 56% of enterprises in North America and 30% in Europe don’t have a good disaster recovery plan. Online Backup News aims to make sure you all have the news and tips needed to keep your IT Costs down and your information safe by providing best practices, technology insights, strategies, real-world examples and various tips and techniques from a variety of industry experts.

Hollis is a regularly featured blogger at ebizQ, a venue focused on enterprise technologies, with over 100,000 subscribers. He is also an author on Social Media Today "The World's Best Thinkers on Social Media", and maintains a blog focused on protecting data: Online Backup News.
He tweets actively as @SoftwareHollis

Additional information is available at HollisTibbetts.com

All opinions expressed in the author's articles are his own personal opinions vs. those of his employer.

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