I created the Customer Advisory Board (CAB) program at Altera Corporation in 2001. It all started when my boss at the time, Robert Blake, complained that we seemed to be planning products by looking in the rear-view mirror. He wanted us to look into the future.
We agreed to our purpose straight away: to align our product roadmaps with key customers. We began by inviting these customers to meet with us face to face at our headquarters in San Jose, California. In these forums, we strove to learn what they were trying to do, with an eye toward developing products they would want to buy in the future.
Understanding what customers want is not an easy, nor obvious task. You can’t simply throw a few customers and product planners in a room and say, go! There’s more to it than simply asking, “Hey, customer, what do you want us to build for ya?” At least, that’s what we came to learn after a few initial rocky meetings.
Engaging directly with customers could be fraught with pitfalls. Unintended expectations could be set, sore topics mentioned, or one might alienate the very people one wants to understand by talking too damned much, pitching products, and failing to listen. No, simply throwing a group of people in a room and seeing what shakes out is a recipe for disaster. Even so, aligning with customers face to face is worth doing. It’s just that, to do it well, it requires planning, training and focus. Over a decade of running the CAB program, I learned many lessons the hard way. I’ve written many of them down in this book. My hope is that by sharing my experience, I can save you from such trials.
This book is intended to teach you how to not only side-step pitfalls, but to engage with customers in such a way so as to discover their insights that matter. In this book you’ll find:
- Specific skills for face to face engagement with customers
- How to cultivate an aligning mindset
- Clear roles for each member of the uncovering team
- Step by step recipes for running customer alignment meetings
- Example scenarios inspired by real experiences
- Tips for correcting counterproductive behavior
This book is derived from concepts and skills that proved to be effective for us in the CAB program. These concepts transformed us from a disparate group of individual amateurs to a team of professionals. I hope they can do the same for you.
The concepts, examples and strategies contained in this book are my own, even if inspired by my experience working at Altera Corporation. The advice herein in no way represents the actual processes or procedures followed by product developers and managers at Altera Corporation. For example, the specifically named ‘customer alignment’ or CA meeting was wholly created by Laura Reese, and is not a part of Altera Corporation processes.
Furthermore, the views expressed in this book are solely those of Laura Reese, and, unless otherwise noted, are in no way intended to represent the views, positions, or opinions – expressed or implied – of Altera Corporation or anyone else.
In this book, real people are referred to by their full names, including first and last names. All other people, who are referred to by only their first names, are fictitious. Any similarities to real people are coincidental and unintended.
I apologize in advance to anyone with the first name of Tom or Bob. In this book, Tom and Bob tend to not perform optimally.
The Power of Preparation
Arriving at work one morning, I was in an upbeat mood. A strategic customer alignment meeting with XYZ Corp was scheduled for ten o’clock. Everyone was ready, and every detail had been taken care of. We’d prepared for over a week, and today was the day.
An email marked ‘Urgent’ greeted me after I turned my computer on. It was from Nathan. I had a bad feeling about it. Nathan was my key attendee, and was our lynchpin Subject Matter Expert (SME). As I clicked on the email, I prayed, Please don’t cancel. Please don’t let me down.
Unfortunately, my fears were confirmed. “Laura, I’m sorry, I can’t attend the meeting today. There’s an accident on 17. Besides, I’m fighting a nasty head cold. I recommend Jacob as my replacement – he’s on cc. If he can’t make it, call me at home and I’ll help you find an alternate. – Nathan.”
This was disappointing. XYZ Corp was our company’s third largest customer, accounting for over 10% of revenue. The XYZ division joining us in an hour drove a healthy chunk of that business. They were industry leaders. As such, we were eager to align our product roadmap of FPGAs (Field Programmable Gate Arrays) with them.
It had been radio silence from XYZ recently, but now they were sending four valuable employees: an in-the-trenches engineer, two influential engineering directors, and the CTO. Their strong lineup was hardly an expression of love for us, however. Rather, it was testimony to the fact that our products were critical to their success. The truth was, they weren’t our biggest fans at that moment. We’d burned them recently with a software update, which had set their schedule back by weeks, maybe months. The market they served was intensely competitive. Time to market meant everything, and we’d inadvertently compromised their plans. No, they were not happy with us.
Thankfully, the software issue had been resolved just in time for this alignment meeting. However, their wounds were still fresh. It wouldn’t be easy to get them to open up, and that was one reason why I needed Nathan’s presence. He was great with customers. If anyone could unlock customer information, it was him. For one thing, he brought technical credibility, and nothing keeps an engineer talking like an audience who understands what’s being said. But there was more to it than mere comprehension. When you get engineers around a white board discussing a problem, you see camaraderie, ad hoc teaming, exploration, creativity, brainstorming, common purpose, head scratching, and inspiration. There’s something special about a conversation between people who understand a topic in-depth. Nathan was the kind of colleague who could connect in this manner with just about anyone, no matter their personality type. His knowledge of our products, and of the industry as a whole, was simultaneously broad and deep. Yep, Nathan was perfect.
I should have been in a panic, but I was calm. How could that be?
A few years’ beforehand, Nathan’s cancellation would have singed me like a three alarm fire. But now, I knew I could draw on my team of competent attendees. Nathan’s alternate would bring the technical credibility we needed. More importantly, I was confident he would ask skillful questions, build trust with the customer, and demonstrate genuine interest. He’d connect, and, in the end, he’d strengthen our relationship with the customer. How did I know all this? Because I’d taught him how.
Rewind a few years, however, and the prospect of inviting an alternate to a customer meeting would have been as appealing to me as a round of Russian roulette. Back then, there were only a handful of people who I felt comfortable putting in front of customers, and even some of them could be unpredictable. But an alternate? No way. They might talk too much, or ask leading questions. Worst of all, they might attempt to sell the customers on our products, coming off as sleazy used-car salesmen. I’d seen every cringe-worthy behavior you could imagine. We’ll review some specific examples later in this book.
To be fair, colleagues from engineering, marketing and other departments usually behaved professionally. It was glaringly notable the few times when they didn’t. The problem was that I never knew when they were going to derail the conversation. Even the most diplomatic among them, including high level executives, could make awkward comments, or steer the discussion off course. Whether due to outrageous gaffes, or tiny peccadilloes, each misstep added up over the course of a meeting. The consequences were consistent: the customer would stop talking and we’d come away with little useful information.
So why did we continue? Why did we book more meetings? Because there were times that magic happened; we’d connect. Everyone could feel it. The conversation would carry forward on its own as excitement crescendoed. Suddenly, the customer would jump up, grab a dry-erase marker, and brainstorm ideas on the whiteboard. Thus inspired, we were in flow. Pencils scratched over engineering notepads, and laptop keys clicked. We happily recorded outpourings of customer insights, ideas and vision.
Out of that magic came revelations that we might never have otherwise encountered. Out of that magic came a deep understanding of what the customer was truly trying to do and why. We learned what was getting in their way, and explored ways we might help them overcome such obstacles. We heard stories, not just data points. We understood the context and importance of each piece of the customer’s situation.
On these occasions, when we connected with customers, I’d wonder, could we cultivate that magic? Could we avoid whatever prevented that magic from materializing? Could we learn to exchange useful information with customers and avoid alienating them?
I began observing our behavior in the margins of my notes. After a few customer meetings, the truth emerged: we were winging it.
People were coming to the meetings unprepared. They hadn’t read email briefings and had skipped pre-meetings. Then they’d show up and steer the conversation according to their own agendas. Otherwise cordial colleagues sometimes became argumentative when they didn’t hear the answers they wanted to hear. That made me angry. I wondered, didn’t people know how to behave?
Then I imagined myself in my colleagues’ shoes. Like me, they had decisions to make, projects to push forward, and interminable meetings to endure. The customer alignment meetings took them away from their work. They were being placed into an impossible position. They were expected to behave well with customers, but hadn’t been told specifically what was expected. I hadn’t explained the meeting goals to them, nor their specific roles in the meetings. I hadn’t provided behavioral tips, such as how to deal with seemingly irrational customers, how to ask skillful questions, or how to take useful notes. No, I hadn’t trained them, and yet I expected perfect behavior. How naive of me.
It was time to rectify the situation. Firstly, I needed to educate myself. I sought guidance, and found much wisdom in books, many of which are listed in this book’s appendix. I learned questioning techniques from Rory Clark, the “creator of Focus $elling®, a … system that (teaches) leadership, teamwork, and performance through the renovation of individual mindsets.”
As I developed my own, in-house training program, I received invaluable feedback from a colleague in the HR department, the ever insightful, Eva Condron, (title).
I was eager and ready to go. I developed a training class and invited about fifteen people. Two people showed up – two people who needed training the least. They mostly listened in my meetings, and the few questions they’d ask were usually good questions. So, I let people know that if they wanted to meet with customers, they were required to undergo training. I petitioned the heads of each department to nudge their teams to attend. In the end, nearly everyone who took this training embraced it. Many said they felt relieved, for they finally understood, with absolute clarity, what their roles and responsibilities were. They were gratified to learn exactly was expected of them, and often more importantly, what was not expected. They developed alignment skills, and contributed ideas for improving our customer engagements, which were included in subsequent training sessions.
Within a year, our customer alignment program had transformed. We spent less time preparing, and gathered useful information at every customer meeting. With our success came demand from the field. Our sales teams had long been wary of putting their customers in front of what they called, loose cannon ‘factory’ people. With visibility and positive customer chatter about our meetings, they became more comfortable with bringing customers to us. Sales teams began requesting customer alignment meetings, or CA meetings. They saw CA meetings as a means of strengthening relationships with their customers.
Attendees from our engineering teams also began asking to come to meetings. Previously, CA meetings were regarded as disruptions to their schedules. CA meetings were sources of annoying action items. After attending the training, they saw value in hearing directly from customers. They came to understand that the objective was not to pick up action items, but to learn customer goals and challenges, which they enjoyed doing.
As for me? Well, I gained confidence in the team. Dozens of colleagues, across multiple departments, could be called upon to help us in the product planning department to uncover information we needed to define better products. We became a team capable of uncovering the customer information that mattered to us. We were in a good place by the time XYZ was due to visit.
And so, as I ‘replied all’ to Nathan’s email, I was calm and relaxed. Jacob would be up to the task. He’d bring all the technical credibility we needed. More importantly, I was confident he would ask skillful questions, build trust with the customer, and demonstrate genuine interest. He’d connect, and, in the end, he’d strengthen our relationship with the customers. How did I know this with such certainty? Well, he’d attended my training sessions, and I’d witnessed him wield the skills he’d learned to great effect.
You see, customer alignment can be done. But each meeting requires planning, and each attendee must be trained to use their innate skills in the context of a larger team effort. Each team player must understand her role within the team, and play that role at the right time. This doesn’t mean people must alter their personalities. They simply need to adjust some wording when they ask questions, take proper notes, and sharpen their listening skills. All of this can be learned, and all of this can be taught.
This book is derived from the ‘Subject Matter Expert’ or SME training that Jacob, Nathan, and dozens others underwent. It’s a compilation of specific and actionable tips that worked for us. These skills proved invaluable as we aligned with customers during my tenure in the product planning department at Altera Corporation from 1999 through 2012.
This training was developed in the context of the semiconductor industry. While most examples derive from that world, the concepts translate to other industries outside of Silicon Valley. If your goal is to align with customers or stakeholders, there’s probably something in this book that you can use. These concepts can work in non profit organizations, accounting agencies, widget manufacturers, or law offices. That said, the tips contained herein are a starting point. Use what works for you, adjust the advice as it makes sense for your situation, and build upon your experience.
These techniques are not complicated. Anyone can learn them, including technical engineers, experienced marketers, or even … high level executives.
But I Want to Wing It!
It was clear we were all winging it in customer alignment (CA) meetings. While I too like thinking on my feet, and find planning and training to be utterly boring, I realized that by failing to develop our customer interfacing skills, we spent too many mental cycles thinking about what to say. Worse, for those of us who spent no time thinking about what to say, the results could be disastrous. Foots inserted into mouths, regularly.
Corporations usually provide sales training to their customer facing employees, but don’t extend such lessons to their internal engineering and planning teams. My colleague, Eva Condron, called such internal employees, Subject Matter Experts (SMEs). When SMEs lack basic training in interacting with customers, sales teams loathe having them in meetings with customers. That’s unfortunate, because often, customer insights that matter most are aired precisely when customers talk directly with product developers about their future plans and goals.
This book is intended to bridge that gap. It’s intended to provide easy-to-remember tips for SMEs so that they can reliably interact with customers. The goal isn’t about issue resolution however, the goal is to align roadmaps and improve the planning process by eliciting trustworthy, unbiased and useful customer insights and information. Customer-facing SME training, is essential if this sort of information is desired by the product planning team.
Ask yourself this: what’s your focus during a customer meeting? Questioning techniques? Interpersonal skills? Probably not. No, you focus on the discussion, and as you do, you naturally snap into whatever conversational habits you’ve developed over your life. That could mean you interrupt as soon as you disagree with what’s being said. Or, it could mean you ask verbose and wandering questions that do more telling than asking. In some contexts, these tendencies have merit, in others, they can be disruptive. Conversely, going by instinct could mean you never utter a peep. That could result in failing to gain critical information.
Focusing on the conversation is the right thing to do, and that means that optimal conversational skills must be made into habit. The way we question and listen needs to be automatic, or second-nature. With training and preparation, well honed uncovering skills free you up to … think, listen, and strategize. Ultimately, you get the information you’re after.
When we leave questioning skills to chance, when we let attendees roll their own questions in real time, our meetings go awry. Untrained attendees disrupt the flow of conversation, transmit unintended messaging, or fail to ask what they truly want to ask. Or, they ask well-meaning questions, but in such a way that the customer volleys back with hollow, unsatisfying answers. Too much of this can compromise the spirit of the meeting. Training delivers the benefits of unearthing relevant information – all while freeing up people’s minds to mull deeply into the topics at hand, without wondering if they’re about to upset the customer.
If you’re sold on the concept, and you want to develop these skills, skip ahead to the next section. If not, continue reading.
Still with me? Still not sold? Don’t worry, I’ve anticipated this reaction, and have lovingly prepared this chapter for you. Below you’ll find some common objections I’ve heard from colleagues who wanted to opt out of training. Below each objection I’ve written my typical responses. Sometimes I convinced the heretics. Other times, I convinced their bosses to “convince” them to improve themselves and their contribution to our customer uncovering efforts. If you identify with any of these objections, please read the corresponding response.
Objection: “I’m already great with people. I can opt out of training. Right?”
Uh, no. Even if you’re a hit at parties, you need alignment skills training. Here’s why.
Effective CA meetings are team efforts that require specific planning and specialized language. Imagine a professional soccer match. Each player knows their role: what part of the field to cover while the ball is being handled elsewhere. Now imagine a soccer game of six year olds. Every player rushes for the ball wherever it is. They run over each other, trip up, and in the end, the ball moves haphazardly. This vision, of six year olds playing soccer (football if you are outside of the US), came to mind often in those days prior to training. Which team do you want to play on? Winning with professionals, or losing with a bunch of novices?
When you’re part of a team, you should know your role. You know when to step back and let your teammates carry the ball. You can identify when your teammate is in trouble and help without getting in the way. Teammates with common training can execute strategies and pivot to new tactics as needed. They think as one.
Secondly, even if you’re good with people, you may find that training improves your game. Those benefits can extend beyond the customer meeting conference room. When I learned these skills, I was raising two elementary-school-aged daughters. I used my newfound skills at home, and discovered they invited independent thinking and honest communication. My elder daughter used to argue with me a lot. When I learned to suppress unintended messaging, she seemed to argue less. Before learning these skills, my younger daughter seemed reluctant to tell me about what was going on at school. After I learned how to ask questions, she revealed that a girl, who I’d thought was her best friend, was, in fact, bullying her. Both girls began cooperating without manipulation or crude systems of punishment and rewards. These customer aligning techniques enabled us to talk to each other as family partners working toward common solutions. That’s how it should be in customer meetings as well.
The benefit to our home life, was a pleasant byproduct. In the end, if you’re unwilling to learn the common language of alignment, are unwilling to learn how to work with your team, it is probably best that you do not attend customer alignment meetings. At best you’ll be a fifth wheel, at worst, you’ll disrupt the game.
Objection: “I’m too busy. I don’t have time for this stuff.”
If you’re invited to customer meetings, and the people organizing the meetings have recommended you learn these techniques, there’s a reason. Learning these skills will save you time in the long run. You’ll learn a common language for aligning. When everyone is working from the same playbook, preparation meetings take less time as everyone on the team immediately grasps their own role and goals. When everyone on the team knows common aligning tactics and skills, it frees you up to focus on the particulars of each customer. You may find that customer meetings become more efficient and enjoyable since you now avoid wasting time on conversations that offer little value.
“I’m an expert in my field. The last thing I need is more corporate training.”
If you are a key subject matter expert within your company, there’s a chance you’ve cultivated a bit of rock star status. Your work is critical to operations, and everybody knows it. That’s awesome. Congratulations. People respect your work, dare I say, they envy you.
You’ve probably put a lot of work into your subject of expertise. Now I invite you to put just a small amount of time and effort into honing your interpersonal aligning skills so that you can play the role that you alone are uniquely qualified to play. By pulling lessons from this book, you’ll understand what the rest of the team is doing, and sit back as you let the team move the customer to a place where she can begin providing insights on your topic. Perhaps the discussion will illuminate how she uses your technology in unexpected ways. Revelations about how your technology might be improved, streamlined, or altered, may come to mind.
Objection: “I’m an introvert. I’m terrible at talking with people. The last thing I want to do is meet with customers.”
Fair enough. Perhaps all this talk of connecting with customers is scaring you off. Don’t worry. There are ways of managing customer meetings so that you can talk sparsely. In fact, your reticence to open your mouth is likely an advantage. This is because the goal of a customer meeting is not to listen to you, but to listen to, that’s right, customers. The majority of the talking should be done by the customers which means the majority of the listening will be done by you. That said, by learning the concepts contained in this book, you may identify times when your voice is needed in the conversation. The skills you learn here may help you identify proper times to engage in conversation – especially when the topic moves onto material you, and nobody else knows or has the perspective for. Give it a chance.
Yes, every CA meeting attendee must undergo training.
Whether you burst with confidence, or lack it entirely, it takes but one untrained person to completely derail a meeting. It doesn’t matter if you’re an introvert or an extrovert, a preening rock star or a silent wallflower. If you go into a customer meeting winging it, or failing to play a specific role on the team, you could unwittingly do real damage. You don’t want to be that person, do you?
What do you stand for? What’s your company trying to achieve? Are you trying to create the best product within your market? To explore new niches? To continually improve customer satisfaction? To align your roadmap with your customers’ roadmaps? All of the above?
If you want to be a valued contributor to moving the company forward, then I’d advise you to do everything you can to align your company with key customers. This training is your ticket to do just that.
Why Align with Customers When Customers Don’t Know Jack?
Steve Jobs famously said, “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard colleagues, especially from the marketing department, repeat this tired quote. Sometimes, the words of Mr. Jobs would be invoked to deflect a disconfirming data point we’d gathered from a customer. Usually, Mr. Job’s words were used to explain why there was little value in attending, or even holding, customer alignment meetings.
Whoa – how does one combat the sentiments of a Silicon Valley deity such as Steve Jobs?
All I could do was agree. Maybe that sounds crazy, since this book is about aligning with customers. But parse the statement out. “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” In other words, they can’t tell you what they want until they know what’s possible for you to deliver. That’s indeed a big part of an effective CA meeting – sharing a glimpse at possibilities on your roadmap. But, and this is a big but and it cannot lie: sharing your product plan is not your lead topic. Yes, it’s important, and it has its place in a CA meeting… and that’s in the second half of the meeting, not the first.
No, the first order of business, ad the true goal of an alignment meeting, is reflected in a less well-known known quotation from Steve Jobs. He said, “You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work back toward the technology – not the other way around.”
Exactly. This is what a CA meeting is all about. The key to aligning with customers is first learning what they are trying to do. The team starts by uncovering their objectives. Only after understanding what the customer is trying to achieve, and discovering what challenges they see before them, does it make sense to discuss possible technological solutions you might offer in the future. If anyone on the team fails to understand this, the meeting can go awry and lead to disappointing results.
What better time than now to give you a preview into the four main objectives of a customer alignment meeting:
- Uncover customer information: specifically, their goals and challenges
- Build relationships
- Continuously align plans
- Document and disseminate information to stakeholders
We’ll get into more detail on each of these later in the book, and you’ll learn ways to achieve these goals with ease. Once you and your teammates are adept at all four, you should find yourselves making more informed decisions and planning better products.
Your team will be much better versed in what customers care about, and as a result, more likely to develop the kinds of products they’ll want to buy. Additionally, your team will better understand your competition. You’ll know whether they’re making good or bad decisions. Why? Because you’ll know what customers are trying to do.
So read on, because that’s not the whole story, and beware: there are some gotchas.
 If you’re unfamiliar with the term, FPGA, think, customizable logic computer chip. If that doesn’t do it for you, just think, computer widget of some sort.
 Rory Clark, http://www.getfocusselling.com/Meet-Rory.aspx
 Props to Sir Mix A Lot