Bridging Code to Customer Gap

One of areas I have focused in many years that I have been involved in building and taking enterprise software products to market is, bridging the code to customer gap. This really is the main reason for success or failure of products.

Success of Failure

Inspiration

Inspiration for many of us building high tech products is offcourse Steve Jobs, and here is his take on bridging the code to customer gap

Steve Jobs

Enterprise Business Software vs Consumer Software – Gap is wider

Most enterprise software products have atleast 3-4 layers between the person who codes the software and the business user who uses the product.  Here is the illustration of the chain.

Product Management

Main challenge when we build products, especially business / enterprise software vs. consumer software, is often that we don’t have direct access to what the ultimate business user wants. Here are few more specific challenges that causes product success or failure

Customer side challenges

  • Most people in IT department of customer do not have knowledge of what is required for their business, its many times their interpretation of problem or their perspective of a solution
  • Business users who have the problem does not have time to invest in sharing the same
  • Business users can articulate the problem but do not know how technology can solve it
  • Business users cannot believe that problems can be solved in a different way – resistance to change
  • Business users resist to share information, as it may cause them becoming redundant
  • Business users and IT users have the knowledge of the problem but cannot influence their management to invest the time and money
  • Many business think they are unique and different, and standard products cannot solve their problems
  • Decision makers in Business and IT have different views on priorities and have conflict
  • Cultural differences and perception without objective assessment of problem and solution that the product can solve – startup vs established vendor, geographical boundaries, technology preferences

Product company side challenges

  • Focusing on what customer wants, usually solution provided by customer IT, rather than what’s the customers problem that needs to be solved by the product, which usually needs to come from customer’s business user
  • Carried away by new technology, instead of understanding business impact it can make
  • Lack of adequate specialized skills to build product – architecture, design, product management, developer, testing – assuming having just developers can lead to good products
  • Thinking with a services mindset, basically just focusing and building for few customer requirements rather than for market, especially due to the $ temptations there
  • Lack of understanding of how product gets sold
  • Lack of business /domain knowledge with development team
  • Complete lack of knowledge with sales /presales to show the value of the product
  • Huge reliance on consultants to get the products implemented , to configure and/or customize

Tips on how we can bridge this gap

Bridge this gap

  • Pilot with 2-3 key customers in the market you choose, where key Business person is involved – Get many user stories and business use cases defined from them
  • Identify key people in customer side who has business + IT knowledge or get a team
  • Culture of getting developers to focus on the problem that’s being solved, rather than just getting excited about technology and language
  • Key developers/architect to meet business users instead of just IT
  • Investing in acquiring the functional/industry/domain knowledge imparted to the development
  • Training extensively the product capabilities – Level 1 for Sales, Level 2 for Presales and Level 3 for consultants
  • Training development team how sales happens, who are the target users and what can help sell the product – listen into sales calls, customer sessions
  • Adopting Agile development methodology
  • Building a conscious product mindset into development team
  • Building products that can be managed by business user without IT dependency
  • Adopt design thinking methodology that helps understanding the business viability, technical feasibility and user desirability

Cloud helps in bridging this gap better

The biggest advantage for me with cloud is that it really helps in bridging this gap extensively, as the developer can see how the product is being used, they can quickly react and there is a far simpler code to customer connection.

cloud

Share your thoughts on this and experiences of any additional challenges you have come across or tips that you have in bridging this code to customer gap…..

How far should you go with Professional Services in your product business?

Turning on a giant switch

For any products company, product support is a given, and part of the products business fabric. However, almost all Enterprise Products Companies end-up offering the professional services beyond basic product support. These services could range from simplistic implementation support, to integration, to solutions-building, to architectural consulting, to IT advisory support. The decision to perform professional services could be driven by customer-demand, or by the intrinsic need of the product being sold, or even driven by the business strategy itself to generate peripheral revenue.

It’s important to understand where the boundaries lie, and what goal does a certain type of professional services serve. The decision to commit to a particular type of professional services needs to be driven by a conscious thought process. This is important because the time & resources required to build various skills & operating models for serving the various flavors, change dramatically from one to the other.

Professional Services in Products Business

1. Product Support

This is the core to the products model and serves as just that – support to the main products revenue, and to ensure customer satisfaction. While the core strategy for any product should be to make it so good that it requires minimal support, there’s always a need for support – offline and real-time for the customers.

2. Implementation Services

An ideal product is ready-to-use off-the-shelf, however, in case of Enterprise products the need to configure & customize could wary. Most times, customers demand for an implementation service packaged in the license deal initially, in order to ensure success. Most times, products businesses have to employ this mechanism also to close sales cycle and to ensure a consistent source of post-sale revenue from such services, and also indirectly to ensure expansion of the product usage through consistent personnel presence on the customer premises.

3. Integration Services

This is where it starts going slightly further away from the core skills that the organization may possess organically. Integration with the existing IT systems and other products at the customer premises would require the skills & management practices beyond the core areas of the organization. An extra source of revenue is one of the temptations, but there are also scenarios where integration of the product is critical to the success of the product, making such services mandatory. This is especially true if the product interfaces are not built with open-standards, and require the integrators to know the details of how the product is built internally. The correct approach would be to build the product interfaces in a way that doesn’t force the business into such compromise to induct professional services for integration. There’s an indirect impact of diversion of core product resources to such integration projects unless such professional services are pursued by design, and resources built accordingly.

4. Solutions & Consulting Services

This is where the game gets strategic, and resources expensive. And the reasons to do this are not any more intrinsically important, but strategically targeted to higher value to the customers and hence, access to the larger pie of the wallet. However, this is easier said than done. Unless there’s enough scale & case in the existing business to allow the focus on such services, strategic, and by design, a business is better off focusing on building the core products business stronger by investing resources there. This makes sense for the products, which are more like Platforms that provide larger leverage than in a Point-solution product.

5. Advisory Services

This is important for the products that are targeted for larger ticket sizes and are built for Enterprise-wide deployments. The IT strategy alignment as well as the strategic positioning of the product becomes important, and it also requires much larger IT leadership level involvement. For Enterprise Platforms, or even for departmental level strategic investments, this approach to professional services can bear fruits. However, building it into a business line requires the core product business to be strong, ready for the leap.

So what?

While the Businesses can look at starting off with the lower scale of Professional Services and build up over time, the decision is very strategic and long term. Professional Services, while offering additional top-line, could actually be a resource-intensice and money-draining proposition if not built properly. The mindset that governs the professional services line of business is drastically different from the product side of business. The operational efficiency is paramount, & profitability can very quickly take a hit. Even more importantly, professional services are more intensely people-driven and the skill sets required to build and sustain this business over long term are not trivial. Look, think, and think hard, before you leap.

PS: There are other considerations on Professional Services that directly or indirectly impact the core product business. I will cover in those in the next post. Until then, hope this helps! 🙂

Pallav Nadhani’s list of Top 10 mistakes entrepreneurs make…(Part 2 of 2)

Pallav Nadhani, CEO and Co-founder of FusionCharts, was just 17 when he started the data visualization product company in 2002. The company today is one of India’s most successful product stories and happens to be one of the first Indian start-ups to have caught the eye of the Obama administration. FusionCharts has a user base of 450,000 across 118 countries, and the company celebrates its 10th year of existence on October 22, 2012. In the second half of a two-part interview with pn.ispirt.in, Pallav Nadhani tells us about keeping a product relevant in the constantly evolving market, how he communicates with team members and what it’s like to work with teams from two very different cities in the country! 

This is part 2 of the interview titled – Find out what inspired Pallav Nadhani to start FusionCharts on their 10th anniversary.

How do you manage to keep your product relevant in the market? How do you keep yourself in the game even after going through the process of scaling and maturing? Usually after this it’s a case of either re-birth or death, right?

For us a couple of things work well : there are nearly half a million developers out there who use our product, so we get more feedback than we can sometimes handle and implement. This is huge repository for us to understand where the market is going. There are some developers out there saying in a few months or few years we see ourselves using the product this way so we require this functionality. So there’s a lot of consolidated information that we get from both our existing clients and prospects, and we add some amount of research and gut-feel to this so that we can improve the different versions.

If you had to pick three functions in the company which are critical for a product company like yours, which ones would you choose?

I’d choose engineering and marketing together first. In our case, marketing and engineering go together because the value proposition and positioning done by the marketing team is done in consultation with the engineering division. Similarly, right from day one of product development, marketing defines the product features such as labels so there is a lot of interaction. I would choose the support function next, because ours is a B2B product so implementation does require some amount of support.

What are some of the tools and techniques that you use internally to keep communication alive? What are some the things that you do keep communication going right from the top to the most junior most employee?

The advantage we have is that we are a really small company — we have a team size of about 60 people. So anything that’s happening gets communicated within the team quite easily. The next advantage that we have is that most of the team is based in Kolkata, and I like to say that the Kolkata team is more like family because of the inherent nature of the city! In terms of messaging, We’ve divided teams into functions so if a team needs to know something, we tell the team head and the trickle down effect just ensures the right communication. All the heads are supposed to involve their team members, and this is relatively easy because there are only four to five members per team. Then we have layers of communication protocols built over this, so engineering has its own system which is visible to everybody within the team. For cross-company communication its either face-to-face or I send out an e-mail — since this is quite rare (like once in three months), people do read them. I also ensure that I ask a question or engage the reader somehow so that I know who is involved. We also use Yammer, the enterprise social network. Another thing we do is celebrate birthdays, so this becomes a one or two hour event which does involve some discussion.

How do you manage the culture difference between Bangalore and Kolkata? Both the cities and their people are very different — Bangalore is more fast paced and Kolkata is not like that.

Like I mentioned, I tend to say Bangalore is the team, Kolkata is family! There are some inherent challenges : when we brought in some senior management in Kolkata there were some issues as most people were used reporting to me and suddenly it wasn’t the case anymore. Now the senior management is trying to put in more systems and processes so that that Kolkata team can work more professionally! There was some resistance, of course, but once they were able to see the value of the changes then things changed. Now there is data to react to, and today they are able to pin-point where things went wrong and fix it. Overall, I’ve not had any major problems. Initially, for the first six months I had to go to Kolkata once every week to act as a mediator. Now I go once in six months so I guess that really shows how far we’ve come!

So FusionCharts has now matured and you’ve been in the business ten years — what are the nuggets of information you’d give product company entrepreneurs out there?

There is nothing thats right or wrong. It depends on the context of the product your are building. A few things that you need to get right are even if you are a developer, you need to focus on packaging your product. Packaging and marketing has an important role to play as no product can really be sold on it’s own — there are only exceptional cases like popular apps which get downloaded millions of times. Team building is another important thing — once your product starts getting traction, your company will get split across so many different functions that you will require help with this. You’d like to believe that you can solve every problem, but it’s not very scalable. Specifically in India, an entrepreneur requires a lot of focus. If there’s a new product idea every week and there’s no focus on one thing, it can disastrous. For the last ten years, we’ve just focussed on data visualization — despite the audience we have and despite our capabilities, we’ve not ventured into other areas  because we know that this particular category has a lot of scope and if we branch out into too many other things we won’t be very good at any one thing.

What is the leadership style that you employ? What do people typically have to say about your leadership style?

I would say mine is more of a laissez-faire style of leadership. It’s very different from the concept that people are not trustworthy. I prefer not micro-manage — I believe in giving people work and a broad outline and let them go about it. At the end of it I’ll tell them how I feel about what they’ve done.

Pallav Nadhani’s list of  Top 10 mistakes entrepreneurs make

  1. Not delegating early and enough for the fear of things not getting done correctly
  2. Hiring senior people who don’t fit and have different expectations and lesser hunger
  3. Not setting culture right – focus is more oriented towards result, than behavior. Also setting unreasonable deadlines which set the wrong culture.
  4. Using the same team to deliver multiple products – bandwidth bottleneck
  5. Not establishing clear communication channels and ownership between teams when moving from generic team members to specialists.
  6. Not getting enough exposure locally for hiring — like the first 4-5 years I lived a cocooned life in Kolkata.
  7. Not bringing in a sales team early — they bring in more deals to close and also free up your time
  8. Losing focus in between — too many products and extensions
  9. Not saying ‘no’ enough to many employee and customer requests
  10. Building custom additions for a few customer along with the main product — upgrade issues.

Entering the Product Space – Shoaib Ahmed, Tally Solutions(Part 2 of 3)

You can read the Part 1 of the 3 series interview here.

Shoaib Ahmed, President of Tally Solutions, began his career as a retail
software developer in the early 90s. Formerly the Founder-Director of Vedha
Automations Pvt.Ltd, Mr. Ahmed was responsible for developing Shoper, a
market-leading retail business solution — and the first of its kind in India to
bring in barcoding to the retail space. The company was acquired by Tally
Solutions in 2005, where Shoper merged with the Tally platform to offer a
complete enterprise retail software suite. In the second of a three-part series,
Mr. Ahmed talks about product development in the B2B space and reaching out
to customers.

Why do you think we are seeing businesses that start off as a product
company become service entities?

This is where I see the need for educating customers: why should you buy our product,
what can you expect from our product and what shouldn’t you expect from our product?
More importantly, will the product solve your key issue and will it do it well? Unfortunately,
who is educating the customer about these aspects? It may be a service provider who is
interested in the service revenue only. So there’s a disconnect — there’s nobody who is
evangelizing the product and being a product champion in the small and medium business
space.

What do you feel about having ‘pilot’ customers who can obtain the
product with an attractive offer like a reduced price?

I don’t think this is the right way of doing things. When you’re reaching out to customers,
it’s important to solve some of their key issues. To do this, you need information about a
particular profile of customers so very clear about who your customer is and what your
customer looks like to you. Now, if you want to get a large enough slice of the market
make sure you have experience with a complete set of customers — you cannot pilot
a semi-experience. You need to be able to engage with him and get your value from
him over the proposition you are making. This means measuring not only the product’s
effectiveness, but also measuring the quality of the sales pitch and that the service
capability and the service quality promise is being fulfilled.

You may decide in the first six months to choose a smaller customer set to target but
you’ll be measuring to see if all elements of your complete product experience are being
monitored for effectiveness or reviewed. This gives you an idea of scalability, since you
can then adopt an attractive pricing strategy with confidence. It can be an incremental
process, but unlike a pilot, you’re not only reaching out to a few customers and shaping
your product around them. With a pilot, the danger could be that the pilot customers are
early adopters who will view evangelizing you product amongst their peers as letting go of
a competitive advantage.

Do you think it’s a myth that it’s easier to develop B2C products rather
than B2B?

I think the success of Tally disproves this. Out of a potential 80 lakh businesses, nearly
40-45 lakh own computers. A large group use Tally for their business — nearly 90%
of the market. So, the constant need for us to deliver a value is critical and it’s also
important to keep communicating this value. If I as a business owner don’t see a value
in paying you for a product or service then I don’t, but increasingly in the connected
world a businessman understands that he can grow his business manifold by leveraging
technology. The information system now has to support him because he is in a connected
world so the game is changing.

In the B2C area, let’s look at the average individual : he has a higher disposal income and
is more exposed to technology. A lot of his day-to-day activities are done using technology
(like banking and filing returns). When he’s engaging with the rest of the world, he’s going
to expect a similar experience. This may act as a driving force for businesses to match
that : for example, can an individual get his doctor’s appointment online? If there is no
supporting eco-system for the the tool that the customer has, then even the greatest
online tool available to this customer can’t drive enough value. In my mind its critical that
business-to-business product development is on the system and the efficiencies have a
direct economic impact. For example, the average time for payment reconciliation in the
small business space is an average eight days. From a digital perspective, it should be
instantaneous. Just imagine the impact and velocity of commerce!

Interview Cont’d