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Rants of a Madman – Have You Talked To A Customer Lately?

July 17, 2012

When was the last time you talked with a customer?  I mean really talked and asked them questions about what you were designing, coding, or testing?  Do you simply pull a story card and treat it like a deposition transcript in terms of “asked and answered” and work away?

One of the things that I always liked about the commercial software industry was that Product Managers had the job of being the voice of the customer and being their advocate.  This was but one of their jobs; a very important one that was crucial to the success of the company.  As the proxy for the customer they were expected, depending on the company they worked for, to travel at least 25% to 50% of their time to stay in touch with all customer contingencies (sales, marketing, professional services, partners, customer service, and yes…actual paying customers).  Some PMs I’ve met along the way never understood this though, assuming they knew all of the answers based on their vast years of experience and that they always knew better than their customers.

In an Agile world the role of Product Owner ensures this voice actually makes it to the development teams.  In commercial software it is played by somebody from Product Management whereas in IT shops it is often played either by somebody from the business or by business analysts within IT.

So, in your Agile world, how often do your Product Owners talk with the actual customers of what your Agile team produces?

Yes, you read me right…  If a Product Owner is a role played on an Agile Team to be the proxy for the actual customer (an end user and/or purchaser of your solution), are they relying solely on their own vast personal experiences or are they actually obtaining the true voice of the customer?  I would contend that if they are basing everything they do on their own personal experiences and are actually hunkered in their bunkers then your agile team is simply building a solution for that one and only one customer:  them; they are acting as a proxy for nobody other than themselves.

If you are a developer or a quality assurance person on an Agile Team when was the last time you spoke to your customer?

When you took that latest story card off the backlog did you use it as an opportunity to have a 5 minute chat with the Product Owner to learn more about it?  Did you ask them the “5 whys” behind the story and the acceptance criteria?  Better yet, when was the last time you had the Product Owner actually connect you with a true end user, the real customer who would use your solution?


Once upon a time, many years ago on a planet far, far away I was a newly minted GUI developer and sub-team lead at the Peter Norton Group of Symantec.  One of the things that I truly loved about PNG was how in touch they tried to make each and every one of its developers with the customer.  This was something pounded in to our heads each and every day by Peter Norton’s first programmer, Brad Kingsbury, who wrote SpeedDisk and DiskDoctor from Peter Norton’s kitchen table.  His attitude was “…if we were not delighting customers then why bother?”

For one particular project I remember how our architect and overall technical dev lead for the product would actually go to the trouble of passing out yellow polo shirts to us propeller heads, load up the cars, and hit a local software store or two to have us walk the isles and ask actual customers what they liked or didn’t like about our solutions.  Visiting another city on business?  He and a Product Manager would load us up in a van and take us to local stores.  The stores loved it as it was like having authors at a book signing and we loved it as we were able to hear firsthand what customers loved and hated.  It was his view that developers make over 1000 decisions a day and how dare they make 1 decision during that day without the voice of the customer whispering to them in their ear.  I think he was on to something over 20 years ago.  Today, that very same architect and dev lead for a product called Norton Desktop for Windows is the CEO of Symantec—Enrique Salem.

So what are you going to do to get out from your bunker?  To quit treating stories like the transcripts of a deposition and truly reach out and actively seek the voice of the customer?  I challenge you to start today.  Take your next story and go chat to the Product Owner about it.  You don’t need to go use the calendaring feature in Outlook to go schedule a meeting; just get up and walk over and drop in on him or her.  Ask about the story and try to learn the 5 whys behind it.  Ask if you can actually talk with an end-user to learn more.  Then go back to your bunker and design, code, and test to your heart’s content.  Like an angel on your shoulder that voice will be whispering in your ear the entire time.  You’ll also have a smile on your face as you hear it that voice guide you along your journey.  Trust me…

What inspired me to write this now?  I’m in the process of visiting our customers.  I spent an entire year connecting with our internal customers, which was great, but hearing from the actual customers our business serves has reminded me that there is no substitute for hearing that voice first hand…

One Comment
  1. Yes, yes, yes. Isn’t it amazing that this even needs to be said. If your products aren’t driven by your market, pack it up and go home. To be market driven, you must “live & breath” your marketplace. Thanks Mark.

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