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Knowing Your Limits…What Do We Really Know?

February 19, 2009

NFLBy Doug Powell, Senior Vice President, Wachovia

The Customer: Part I of III

I enjoy working on my house.  This is a good thing because the person I bought it from (also the person who had it built and, I think, had a direct hand in many of the ‘finishing’ touches) only did about a C+ job on most of it.  I fully realize that this level of craftsmanship (yes, craftsmanS-H-I-P) ultimately allowed me to be able to afford my house on a new, single income, with little real equity, having just relocated after a career move.  Yet each time I get into a project, I inevitably find a lack of attention to detail that reminds me of why I have to redo the work myself, causes me to shake my head and utter the words “how in the world did he think this was quality work?”  As you have no doubt read elsewhere on this site, I have found a very stable process.  Just a few examples:

  • When tiling the kitchen floor (a nice touch), rather than pulling off the baseboard then re-attaching after the tile was down (probably the EASIEST part of any house project), he simply cut the tile and laid it right up to the baseboard, pinning it between the tile and the sheet rock wall.  When I decided to put bead-board on the wall during kitchen remodeling, causing me to have to remove the baseboard, I had to chisel it out.  This turned a two minute job into a three and a half hour ordeal.
  • When putting granite countertops into the kitchen (seemingly a nice touch), he used half inch thick granite glued to a wood slab.  For the edges of the counter—since you can’t round out 1/2” granite—he glued semicircle edges onto the vertical face of the counter edges.  They looked nice, until they started to fall off onto the aforementioned granite tile.  You can’t truly appreciate what happens to granite edge-rail when it falls from approximate 3 feet onto granite floor tile without witnessing the thousands of shards of stone that you find in every nook and cranny of the kitchen.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but my favorite builder didn’t really know what he was doing.  It’s easy to find examples of this in our everyday lives.  Certainly there’s no shortage of people in business these days who have demonstrated to the world, in a way that will be recorded in history, that they do not really know what they are doing.

Why does this happen?  What’s the root cause?  It’s really not so hard to explain and I believe it is a learned behavior—one that you might even exhibit in your daily work.  My company designs software for Treasury Professionals who manage money for their own companies (much like you or I manage our money to meet expenses, make investments, pay down debts, etc.)  Having just been hired into the job, fresh out of a career in health care consulting, I was immediately put into a design role on some multi-million dollar projects to provide new and innovative services.  To gain a perspective, I immediately went out and became certified in both domestic and international cash management.  I am proud of my designations and had studied hard to earn them.

My colleagues and I then gathered in various conference rooms for hours at a time attempting to ascertain which features and functions our customers would use and those that would set us apart from our commodity competitors in the corporate banking services industry.  We had great people in those meetings.  We had experienced people.  We had people from several areas of banking, including operations, technology and customer support—all in the effort to give us a nicely rounded perspective on what customers want.

This, I suspect, is a scene not unfamiliar to many of you and is repeated far and wide, regardless of industry, all over the world.  We all read journals, hire consultants, talk to our sales people, go to conferences, participate in sales calls, etc. in a concerted effort to give us the “idea” edge over our competitors.

Back in the 60’s a reporter asked University of Texas coach Darryl Royal why his team didn’t pass the ball more often.  To this, coach Royal responded “When you pass the ball, three things can happen (complete/incomplete/interception) and two of them are bad.”
So what happened with me, my colleagues and our projects?  We did some good work—some really innovative work.  It’s one of the best in class products of its kind in US domestic banking.  But it wasn’t perfect.  Pieces of what we built were of no real interest to customers.  We also missed things that customers would have been interested in using—three different outcomes, two are bad.

These outcomes are probably not uncommon in many product development endeavors.  But does this have to be the case?  Are we forever relegated to tearing out unnecessary functionality and making up for what we’ve missed?  The answer is….NO.  What’s more, the root cause is simple and the solution is maddeningly obvious.

What were my colleagues and I really trying to figure out in all those meetings?  Who were we trying to help?  Who were we trying to pretend to be?  That’s right….our customers—cash managers and corporate treasurers.  We were all certified, had experience in software design, and some of us had decades of experience in the subject.  The one problem?  None of us are actually cash managers.  We are bankers.  We’ve always been bankers (or in my case, something else entirely).  Even with our years of experience can we effectively impersonate our customers?  Why do we even try?

I have a term for this….professional conceit.  We honestly believe that we CAN be someone, or at least impersonate someone, that we are not.  In retrospect, I’m a little embarrassed at having even tried.  I was a health care consultant!  Yet don’t we try to impersonate our customers every single day of our careers?  We’re professionals, paid to be experts in our field.  Experts must know their customers, right?  We’re paid to know, and we are conditioned to think that we can.  It’s not a lie if we believe it to be true…right?  How many times a year do we say, or at least hear someone else say, “I put myself in the customer’s shoes…”?

Is it really necessary to impersonate customers?  As one of the top banking services providers in the industry, we have over 100,000 corporate customers.  Each of them has their own shoes.  Why waste time pretending to be someone who we might just trip over walking out the door of our own building?  How many of you work for a company that has customers?

Pretending to be the customer in our daily development processes is the root cause of many of the issues that our company has run into over the years—it is hard to identify them all.  The benefits of solving this root cause by infusing the customer directly into our daily processes are plentiful and wide ranging.  We’ll talk about those at another time…but consider to yourself, whether or not you have let professional conceit seep into your daily work?  If so, the house you’re building for your customers might just be C+ work…and every day they live in it, they will likely find evidence of professional conceit, shake their heads and utter “how in the world did they think this was quality work?”

  • Michael

    I agree. Instead of spending time putting ourselves in customers shoes why not just ask them and spend more time finding out how they measure the offering and FOCUS on exceeding expectations. We are all customers right?!

  • Doug Bass

    Looking forward to Parts II & III…