Thursday, July 20, 2006

Language, Language

Have you ever noticed how easy it is to agree with someone and not commit to anything? This is very evident whenever you talk about change with people.

Here are two that I've heard this week.

"I can't make that decision. I'm waiting on the CEO to tell us if we are a product or services company. Once they do that, everything else becomes easy."

Classic avoidance of responsibility. It is important to notice that the person is claiming that they would like to help you, but someone else is stopping them.

Of course, if that decision is never fully made, or it's always a tension between the two poles, nothing will ever be done. It is even a ready made excuse to avoid doing anything.

The other one is even sneakier.

"We could try that."

This one is very, very stealthy. You feel that the person saying it has agreed with you. However, if you look at it, they've committed to nothing. Of course we could try many things, how many of them will actually happen?

Some of my most frustrating work experiences have been with people who appear to agree, but then do nothing. If you don't agree, say so, don't let your comments fester.

I challenge you to use different language the next time someone comes to you with an idea. How about trying some of these.

If you disagree, "Have you considered..."

Working towards a final result of, "Let's try that. You can start next week."

Trained to Complain

I had an epiphany the other day. The chairman of the board came and gave a presentation. He relayed some information to us that was amazing. He said that the CTO for one of our customers had changed companies, and that he had recommended our product to his new employers!

That shouldn't be surprising. You would hope your customers are making recommendations like that all of the time. The interesting thing was that the original customer didn't appear to like us! The relationship with that customer was stormy, and they eventually turned off our software.

The epiphany was this. Every single one of our customer relationships is dysfunctional. Even though our customers complain and say that our software is compete garbage, they secretly love us. That tells me one of two things is true:

  1. Our software really is terrible, it just happens to be slightly better than any other supplier's.
  2. Our software is fine, and something else is going on.

My guess is on 2. Otherwise, the CTO wouldn't have recommended us.

I think we've trained our customers. I think that they have learned that to get anything they need to complain loudly. Not only do they have to complain loudly, they have to threaten. They feel that the only time they get attention from us is when we feel they are going to take their business elsewhere.

The thing is, they're right. We've trained them to act this way.

We are completely reactionary. We keep moving staff from fire to fire. Customers don't get attention unless they are the current emergency. As surely as a dog can be made to salivate when hearing a bell, our customers have learned to scream when they want attention.

That means that not only do our customers feel ignored, we feel like we're always digging ourselves out of holes. We're not happy and our customers aren't happy.

This is something that needs to change. We need to convince them that they will get attention regardless of how bad the situation becomes. We do this by becoming more proactive.

Have you ever seen a team of 5 year olds playing a team sport? They're in a big cluster around the ball. That's what we look like right now. In kids, it's really cute. In a bunch of adults, it is sad.

How do you avoid the problem? As in sports, you start to play positions. Traditional maintenance contracts involve a vendor fixing bugs as the arise. If no bugs are found, the money is pure profit. The change is to spend a portion of that "profit" on the customer every month.

You give your customers a time budget every month. If your customer doesn't have any urgent problems to fix, spend that time proactively. Fix some of their less important issues, or even better, go looking for new ones. The trick is that your customer sees progress on what they want changed. You could even use that time to implement small changes that you would have previously charged for.

At first glance, it looks like this will result in lower profits. However, as with most faults, early detection is key to lower costs. It's amazing how often that faults start out as minor annoyance and become serious or critical problems over the space of about 6 months. If you keep contact with your customers, and work steadily on their problems, you will find that you will avoid that severity escalation. If you consider just how much extra money you spend on a customer in an emergency, you will likely find that spending extra to keep them happy is more than worth it.

You'll enjoy your job more too.