Let your customers lead you

If necessity is the mother of invention then surely customer demand is its father. When I reflect back on critical moments in product development throughout my career — those times when we really had to stretch ourselves and get out of our comfort zone — behind almost every one of them was a customer pushing us to go farther or to be better. Those are your best customers. They’ll drive you crazy; demand the world and want it tomorrow, but if you let them, they will lead you kicking and screaming into the future.

I spent the first 10 years of my career working for small technology companies, working for entrepreneurs that self-funded and grew their businesses organically. When I look back, I think my customer-led approach to product development was shaped during those formative years. We had products, sure, but any deal of any consequence inevitably included some sort of one-off solution that the team just had to figure out. It wasn’t something we complained about — that was the fun part. The new thing we were going to have to band together to deploy, monitor, and support. Over time the same one-offs would come up more and more frequently and those were the items we’d instinctively standardize and document. Gradually that matured into a more formal product development lifecycle and product development became a strategic focus, but the core principal of listening to my customers and being led by them remains close to my heart.

It can be difficult to maintain a willingness to embrace the unknown as organizations get larger. Eventually departmental boundaries solidify, inter-personal politics begin to play a role, and job descriptions become the thing that defines what we won’t do because it’s somebody else’s job. Preventing this sort of unproductive nonsense from calcifying depends on a commitment to customer-driven innovation at all levels of an organization. It depends on a mission and vision that evangelize innovation and customer experience and grounding the DNA of the team in those values. An organization either chooses to invest in a culture of innovation or they do not. It does not happen by accident.

My belief in the power of customer driven innovation is just one of the many reasons why I’m so excited to be part of the ClearDATA team. Our new Containers-as-a-Service platform was not only inspired directly by customer demand, but has been developed in collaboration with early adopters of the platform providing continual input and feedback throughout the process.

Fortunately customer input isn’t hard to come by if you’re willing to listen. Especially so when your customers are reliant on your team and your products to keep their businesses running or their sensitive healthcare PHI secure and managed in a compliant manner. The Net Promoter discipline is a common tool used to determine your customers commitment to your product. Through that process, sincere engagement with promoters and detractors alike can give you a wealth of information about where you’re doing well and where you have room to improve. At a larger scale, more formal tools like a customer advisory board can be an excellent way to collect input from your most strategic customers in an open forum. It can also be a great way to give key customers the ability to provide feedback directly to your product and engineering teams not only on current products, but also on things like roadmap prioritization.

Returning to where I began, passionate innovators will always find success at the intersection of necessity and demand. Those who ask pertinent questions and listen intently will always find problems worth solving for customers in need of solutions. Obsess over the problem. Solve it elegantly. Iterate and validate and never discount crazy ideas from demanding customers — you might have found the inspiration for your next product!