In the beginning, I knew all the answers. I was young. I was considered smart and things had gone my way most of my life. Why would I think any differently. Our startup had gotten 6 million dollars in 30 days with just 3 customers and some working software. Fast forward 9 years...and the picture was different. We had so much trouble launching a follow-on product that was as successful as our first product.
At this moment I was ready to hear the news that I had done things the hard way most of my career. Previously I had been programming and programming, releasing and releasing...throwing spaghetti at the wall and watching some pasta stick and others fall to the ground without knowing why.
Now I knew why. I hadn’t been paying attention to my customers and was just guessing. Sometimes our guesses showed results, most of the time they didn't make a difference. And my customers were unhappy since they didn't think we understood them (we didn't). But given the high rates of retention once a customer has implemented software, there was still a chance to be successful. But I had to work fast since my competitor was knocking on the door (really, my clients' doors).
Luckily, I had decided to attend a seminar solely focused on the Product side of software development (from Marty Cagan). There, I learned how to approach and extract valuable insights from my customers. Previously, I had lumped them all together into a large source of one-off ideas that weren’t practical for a product software business. Now, I knew that I had to find the "guru" customers (my phrasing, not Marty's) who knew their domain AND knew our product. These gurus would eventually provide insights into our next set of features that would impress and motivate the rest of the customer base.
Besides the gurus, there were customers that I gathered into a group that didn’t know our products very well but could explain their company problems quite well. With this information I could see trends in the problems and opportunities that a large subset of my customers were facing. These, I called the "domain experts".
And lastly, I encountered the few customers who thought we were an outsourced software shop who worked solely for them. Sometimes these were customers with poorly set expectations from our sales team. Most often they were customers that didn’t understand the cost and time benefits of using a platform of software versus an agency (or IT) approach. These were customers who were using our products successfully but were not aligned with our company mission. I instructed my colleagues to provide great service to these customers but not to get too sucked into their demands which were not productive for our company’s future. These, I deemed the "outlier" customers.
So while it's convenient to think of your customers as all outliers, it's not productive or useful. Go find the gurus and the domain experts and create relationships that lead to cooperative success.
Summary: It's never too late to start collaborating with your customers. They are your best source of ideas since they are using your products in their business every day.
Coming next: For more practical advice on the above, read Meet 100 Customers per Year - How to Create a Company Culture that Wins by Focusing on Your Customers.