his may seem like the wrong topic for a blog post so early in the year, since you're probably still digging out from the holiday season and have a 2-page task list plus 200 emails to get through. But I'd suggest you step back every now and then - particularly when you're busy - and look at the big picture. In particular, look at how your reference program fits together with the myriad of ways, many of them new and exciting, that your firm is engaging its customers.
Doing so will help you:
- Focus your efforts on what's important.
Reference managers have too much to do. Understanding where your program fits into your firm's big picture will help you set priorities.
- Accelerate your career growth.
And there is much reason to believe that the broader emerging field of "Customer Programs" will become a major new area in marketing (see the discussion under "A Prediction," here.),
- Enhance your reputation with senior management as someone who thinks strategically.
For example, take new product development (NPD). The “Voice of the Customer” – which includes the voice in particular of your customer references – is critical to NPD. Indeed, over the last couple of decades, our understanding of exactly how customer input can help NPD succeed has grown increasingly sophisticated. And it turns out that reference managers, without doing much of anything new, are in an excellent position to contribute to NPD.
How References Can Contribute to NPD
We now know that it doesn't always work to ask customers what new features they want or how they would improve the products/ services they're using. A better approach is to understand what "job" they're trying to get done (see Anthony Ulwick's excellent article on this, particularly pages 6-7). Once you know this, you then turn your engineers/ designers loose to develop ways to make the customer's job easier. For example, Intuit's QuickBooks gained rapid market share and eventually market dominance with a product that couldn't match - and didn't try to match - the sophisticated, report generating capacity of rival programs, which were developed by accountants. Rather, QuickBooks product developers talked to and watched business owners use their accounting software and found they weren't interested in the fancy reports. They just wanted a program that would make sure they didn't run out of cash. That's precisely what Intuit gave them.
What does this mean to you as a reference manager? Your writers are developing success stories and case studies. In their interviews, have them focus less on the whiz bang features, functionalities and capabilities that your engineers and product developers are touting. These things don't sell in any case. Have them focus more on what "job" customers are trying to get done with your product or service; what their desired outcomes are; and, how your current products are helping them achieve these outcomes. The answers, of course, will help sell more products. But if the customer's answers are different from what product developers think customers are doing, that information will also help NPD. And if you have your writers also ask customers about any constraints that prevent them from achieving optimal outcomes, that information will also be highly valuable to NPD. By sharing such information - most of which you're already gathering - with NPD, you become part of the bigger picture.
The Spring 2007 Customer Reference Forum will be held the week of April 23 or the week of April 30, for those of you wanting to plan. We'll finalize with the hotel in the next week or so, and I'll provide the exact dates and location as soon as I have them.