Aligning entails kindly listening to what customers say they want from you, and then not building the product they ask for. You read that right. Customers have all sorts of ideas of what they want you to create for them. They may feel very strongly that they need a speedy widget with hovering capabilities. Or, they may tell you they require an FPGA that closes timing at 1GHz on a 1024 bit data path with hundreds of 50Gbps transceivers and an enormous amount of random access memory. Oh, and that FPGA must meet a power budget of under 10Watts.
>> Don’t ask customers for product specifications. (These are not customer areas of expertise)
So, why don’t you go and build what the customer says they want? Well, for one thing, it may be impossible to build. More likely, it will be extremely expensive to implement. Down this fool’s path, you may commit a tremendous amount of time, resources and materials only to deliver a product that the customer cannot afford. Most of all, you kindly listen and then shelve customer product implementation recommendations because product definition is YOUR area of expertise, NOT the customer’s.
>> Do discover customer goals and challenges. (These are customer areas of expertise).
Why even consult with customers? Because your expertise ends where theirs begins. You may know how to specify or build a widget, but customers are the ultimate experts in what they want to do with such a widget. They are intimately aware of their current experience with the widgets available today. They can painstakingly describe the flurry of challenges they are trying to overcome. Most importantly, they can tell you, better than any ‘expert’, just what it is they are trying to achieve in the future. When aligning, uncover the topics in which customers are the experts: their goals and challenges. You can fill in the rest.
Heed the lesson of Homer.
Sometimes I hear a colleague ask a customer something like, “So, what do you want us to build for you?” Immediately, my mind conjures up an image of ‘The Homer‘.
In Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? (episode 15,season 2 of the Simpsons), Homer J. Simpson discovers he has a half-brother named Herb, who owns a Detroit car company. Herb decides that Homer perfectly encapsulates his target customer: the everyday-man.
Herb is sick and tired of turning out tired derivatives of the same car over and over. He introduces Homer to his design team and tells them to come up with a car for the everyday-man.
Upon meeting, the design lead asks Homer, “So, uh, what kind of car would you like, Mr. Simpson?” Homer knows nothing of on-board computers or what Homer calls rack and peanut steering. Realizing Homer’s ineptness, the design team bulldozes ahead, totally ignoring Homer’s input. Exasperated, Herb puts Homer in charge, telling the designers to build exactly what Homer asks for. (Doh!)
The car they produce is, of course, a hideous mess. With a bubble cabin hood and enormous tail fins, the sticker price of $138,000 (in 2013 dollars), ‘The Homer’ is far too expensive for the everyday-man target customer.
What went wrong? First of all, the design team missed a valuable opportunity to ask Homer about what he knows best: what he wants to do with the car (aka his goals and challenges) such as where he drives, what image he wants to project and whether he eats or drinks while driving. Unfortunately, their hubris led them to turn a deaf ear. They presumed to know what Homer wanted and failed to ask any open-ended and Homer-focused questions. The team failed to recognize where their expertise left off and where Homer’s began. They failed to discover goals and challenges from Homer, the customer, the expert.
Next, when Homer was put in charge, the team blindly designed exactly what he specified, even though he clearly had no idea what he was asking for. Homer had no expertise in car design nor in manufacturing, and yet, they implemented product designs from this non-expert. The design team should have probed further. By taking Homer so literally, the team failed to uncover why he wanted each item. For example, when Homer said he wanted a bubble hood, perhaps what he was really asking for was better visibility in all directions. When he said he wanted giant tail-fins, perhaps he was yearning for classic but edgy styling. (Actually, this being Homer Simpson, I think he did literally want a bubble hood and tail fins, but you get the point).
If you are a product planner or design engineer, heed the Homer cautionary tale. By the end of the story, Herb finds himself bankrupt and homeless. Homer is disowned by the only half-brother he never knew. Don’t let this happen to you!
For any topic, always remember who the expert is. Don’t ask to hear what you know, or fish for confirmation of what you suspect. Instead, put aside what you know and ask questions that probe the customer for what they are experts in: their roadmap, their goals and their challenges. Only after gaining a very solid understanding of what the customer is trying to achieve should you ask specific questions about the bits and bytes of what they want. Begin with uncovering goals & challenges and you’ll both be likely to stick to your areas of expertise and share reliable and useful information.
RECOMMENDATION: stay tuned for more posts on how to skillfully align with customers and, check out ‘The Homer‘.