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 Effective Engineering e-Newsletter – 9/7/2006

This is your monthly e-Newsletter from
Effective Engineering Consulting Services (www.effectiveeng.com).  If you would like to receive Effective Engineering e-newsletters as they are published, please send an email to e-newsletter@effectiveeng.com, and we will add you to our distribution list.  Comments and suggestions are welcome and encouraged!


eN-060907:


Connect With Your Customers (Even When You Don’t Know Them)!

  By Tom Dennis – President, Effective Engineering [tdennis@effectiveeng.com]


[NOTE: This is a follow-up article to eN-060413 – Who Funds Your Life?   The original article and this one came from suggestions by my New Zealand friend, Bruce Haycock, of Advantage Business Solutions, (www.advantagebusiness.co.nz).  For both e-Newsletters, Bruce’s strong contributions are greatly appreciated and valued.]


You’re a lowly engineer working on a project for the development of a new product.  You find the product exciting, the project stimulating, and see opportunities to prove yourself and take on new and demanding responsibilities.  You like the challenge this development effort can bring and the chance to apply new technology and techniques.  You are somewhat aware of the strategic value of the product to the company, but not really.  You are aware that real customers will use the products, but don’t know (or really care) much about them.  You figure that if the product works as you envision, customers will probably like it and that’s good enough for you.  You see it primarily as an opportunity to showcase your talents, add new levels of experience to your resume, and to have fun doing so (an opportunity to add all kinds of “features” that work the way you’d like them to work).

The reality is that you often wouldn’t know real customers of your products if you stepped on them.  You’re totally isolated by multiple layers within your company.  There are sales, sales support, customer support, tech support, product management, and others that isolate you from these real customers.  In fact, it appears that your company actually strives to keep you away from real customers.  Companies are often afraid to get the actual development engineers in front of customers.  Engineers are often seen as too geeky and as giving detailed information well beyond what the customer wants or needs to hear, or what the company wants to make public.  They are often viewed as being too “truthful” or “honest” and at times this can undermine sales’ “promises”.  Further, neither sales nor engineering really want to provide customers with a means to bypass the normal channels of contact and get directly in contact with engineering; there’s a value to both organizations in maintaining the proper channels of communications.

The result of such isolation is that you often don’t really know what the customer wants as you begin your design efforts (see eN-030619 – What Do Your Customers Really Want?).  As a consequence, you concentrate more on designing what you think should be included (what works for you) rather than what real customers are looking for (see eN-051208 – The Inmates Are Running The Asylum!).  I think we can all identify with the resulting products that sound good, but when you try to use them find them to be infuriatingly complex and cumbersome (see eN-060105 – How Do I Get This D@#% Thing To Work?).  Customers end up being mad at the product and mad at the company that made the product, and they’re only too willing to let all of their friends, both within and outside of their company, know of their frustrations and anger (see eN-060803 – You Only Get One Chance To Make A Good First Impression!).

But your company’s revenues, and therefore your paycheck, come from satisfied customers buying your products (see eN-060313 – Who Funds Your Life?).  Consequently, it is essential that you connect with your customers, even when you don’t know them!  You must design to their needs, not your own!  How can you do this?

Keep in mind that there are often two or more “customers” that you need to connect with.  There is the direct customer that your company sells to (e.g. a distributor or dealer), possibly intermediary customers in the sales chain (e.g. value added resellers), and the final end-user customers that they sell to (e.g. an engineer or purchasing person at a company for business products, or a homeowner for consumer products).  When you design the product, the needs of all of these “customers” must be understood and accounted for.  You won’t sell it to the distributor unless his needs are met, and he won’t sell it to the intermediaries or end-users unless their needs are met.  All of these needs must be addressed when the requirements documents are being prepared (see eN-030703 – Product Definition – Define What It Is and What It Isn’t!, and eN-030925 – Product Methodology: Requirements).  You, as the development engineer, must then take all of these different requirements into account, or help ensure that those documenting the requirements do.

The best way to connect with your customers is to actually meet them and talk with them.  This can happen by going on a visit with someone from sales, primarily to listen, but also to ask critical questions about their wants and needs and likes and dislikes.  Customers truly enjoy being heard and having their opinions valued.  If it can’t be you, then it should be someone whose opinion you or engineering truly values, so that you have confidence that you’re getting accurate information.  Before a project starts, such contact and connection should be established with multiple customers with varied needs.

Similarly, if you can go to a trade show that a lot of your customers attend, you can get exposure to many different customers and acquire valuable input.  Given the frenetic pace of many tradeshows, it may be difficult to get the input you really need, as many people are often crowded around a display in your booth, but if you can make the time, or better yet, schedule time with critical customers, this can be a very useful way to gather a lot of information in a short period of time.  If you can have more than one person from your company present, then you can compare notes and include information you may have missed.

If you can’t meet directly with your customers, then spend time with those in your company who do.

Product Managers have many jobs, but one of their key jobs is to identify what customers needs really are.  It is imperative that they really connect with the customers or they may define requirements that they want rather than what the customer really wants (see the tire swing cartoon in eN-030619).  But if they do their job properly, they will be able to give you a good idea of real customer requirements, and they should be able to reflect these needs in the Product Requirements Documents that they have responsibility for.

Other Engineers, especially those with the most experience and the most direct contact with customers, should be looked to for guidance and expertise.  Learn from those who know the most.

Tech Support, Customer Support, and Sales Support typically interact directly with customers, either direct customers, intermediate customers, or end-user customer, or all three.  Spend some time with these support people, and learn what customers like and dislike about current products and what they’re asking for in new products.  Look through their Support Logs that show problems that have occurred and what has been done to address them.  There’s a lot of knowledge available that is highly underutilized.  Often, these people also feel underappreciated, as they spend most of their days on the phone dealing with customer frustrations, and it is often not a pleasant experience. Learning from their knowledge will also help to enforce their considerable value to your company. [Note: Efforts such as these are also of tremendous value in Sustaining Engineering efforts (see eN-050106 – Sustaining Engineering: The Care & Feeding of What You’ve Got).]

Sales people can be great sources of information, as they have direct contact with all types of customers on a daily basis.  They are mostly involved on the front-end, when the initial sales are being made (versus Support folks, who primarily handle post-sales activities).

► The Quality Assurance group in your company often serves a role as the customer surrogate, and can also provide excellent insights that can be of strong use in gaining customer insights (see eN-050505 – Make Quality a Full Member of Your Team!).  Take advantage of their knowledge.


There are many ways to learn what your customers really need.  Regardless of how you do it, it is critical that you find ways to connect with your customers, even when you don’t really know them!



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