I once worked with an aggressive product manager who decided to include a product made by another company in his suite of products. It seemed like a good idea because it provided a capability his current products didn’t have and it would increase the overall value he was able to deliver to his prospects and customers. In fact, he was so excited about it; he began describing it to a couple of customers he worked closely with. Being a small and tight industry, those who heard about this upcoming offering told some of their friends at other companies. They were curious about this new product and called their account manager for the details.
 
Unfortunately, the product hadn’t been introduced to the sales force so each account manager was put in the awkward situation of having to admit they didn’t know about the product and they would have to collect information about it and get back to the prospect. This is not a situation you want to create for your sales team.
 
This raises the importance of in what order should the product be introduced to your different audiences. It’s not a complicated problem if you think about where people get information and who you want to deliver the information. First, you want to prepare the people that should be delivering the information to the most important audience, the intended customer.  This is your distribution channel, and for many B2B companies, this means your direct sales force. To strengthen their relationship with current and future clients, they should be given the opportunity and information to accurately and confidently present the value of the new offering.
 
You also need to prepare industry analysts and influencers so they will have prepared thoughtful and hopefully positive reviews of your product when the curious prospects start surfing the web for information about the new product. Don’t forget your support people. They are in constant contact with customers so you need to prepare them with the key messages to use when a customer asks them what they think about the new product.

Following this simple pattern, it’s not hard to develop a schedule of which audiences need to receive the new product information before others. It’s usually your target market that should hear about your new offering last. Introduce the product to
your sales force, your company, the industry infrastructure, and your value network partners first because they’ll play an important role in delivering your messages for you.
 
 
Your company has invested a lot of resources researching what your intended customers need and developing products and services that will deliver a superior experience. Now it’s time to publicly announce the results of your labor which will hopefully build rapid sales momentum. Unfortunately, many new products stumble out of the gate with a clumsy introduction. In many cases, it might be more accurate to say they escaped rather than were introduced.
 
Product introductions, or product launches, are a broad topic and I’d like to focus on just one critical but often overlooked element, the audiences. The obvious, knee jerk response is that in order to build sales  momentum, the audience is the intended customer. No argument there, they need to hear about the product in order to start the sales cycle. But it’s not that simple.
 
If you think about the sales process in the B2B world, there are at least three different intended customers who need to hear about your new offering. There are the user buyer, the economic buyer and the technical buyer. Each has a different role to play in the purchasing process. You must keep all three in mind as your prepare.
 
Don’t forget your current customers. First, they’re likely purchasers of your new product and even if they’re not, you have several goals with your introduction. You can strengthen your relationship with them and assuage any concerns they may have about the potential negative impact of the new product on their use of your current offering. Are you shifting direction? Will support go away on the current product?
 
Your direct sales force or distribution channel will be hungry for the appropriate information as they will be delivering the message and answering questions from your highest potential prospects. And don’t forget your partners in the value network. If they provide complementary products and services, you’ll want them to be prepared to contribute to a positive introduction.
 
When you hear about a new product for the first time, where to you go to learn what others think about it? You probably go to your favorite industry analyst, blogger, or industry-specific web site. Those first reviews and impressions are critical because with instantaneous access, the waves of positive or negative reviews are formed in hours. Therefore, your introduction plan should include industry influencers.
 
Last but not least, don’t forget about your own employees. A new product introduction is an excellent way to reinforce your mission and strategy. It’s a chance to celebrate the hard development work and strengthen their understanding of how your company is delivering superior value to your intended customers.
 
Are there any other audiences that should be added to this list? In my next post, I’ll talk about the timing of messages to the different audiences.

 
 
I recently reviewed a number of articles on why products fail. I’m not going to summarize all the reasons offered because they’re easy to find with quick Google search. What jumped out at me was how few of the reasons dealt with the product itself. When the product was mentioned, factors were poor quality, feature chasing and weak user experience design.

Most of the causes had very little to do with the device itself. The causes can be lumped into the general categories of not understanding the intended market, offering an incomplete solution, and ineffective communication.

I conclude that the formula for success has many ingredients and developing a quality product is not sufficient. If your company has a strong product perspective, you can easily miss where your intended customers have the greatest need. Or you may not be offering all the pieces they need to solve their pressing problems. Even if you get those parts right, you may not have a brand or messages that resonate with your prospects and your voice will get lost in the din of today’s information overload.

On the other hand, if you have a value-driven or outside-in perspective, the odds are much higher that you’ll understand what it takes to be successful with your targeted customers. You’ll know how to define, develop and deliver the positive experiences and outcomes they seek.

That’s really what determines success or failure. Will enough customers spend their dollars with you instead of all the alternatives so your company can continue to grow and invest in the future? That is determined by how much value they receive, not the features you put in your product.

If you've ever had a product failure, what did you learn from the experience and what did you change to avoid the same occurrence in the future?
 
 
We’ve described the importance of a customer’s resulting experiences in defining value. But how do you capture, document, and share an experience so people in different functions across the company can understand how to improve it? If you were defining a product feature, it’s pretty easy to state a specification such as the user interface must support Internet Explorer
9, Firefox, and Chrome browsers. Explaining an experience that is superior to alternatives is harder.

There are a number of methods that provide parts of the answer but it’s very rare for them to be combined into a coherent process. Market requirements are intended to convey the details of a customer’s problem to the designer or developer. When these requirements are assembled, they become a Market Requirements Document. Unfortunately, they tend to be functionally oriented and don’t take into account the user’s circumstances, motivation or emotions. Even worse, they frequently abandon the user’s perspective and morph into a collection of desirable product features.

Use cases are a description of actions between a user and a software system which leads the user towards something useful. Sometimes these are illustrated in the form of use case diagrams. Use cases tend to be very functional, for example, the user clicks on this link and a second window opens. To help take the user’s perspective, some companies write personas. This is the technique of describing fictional characters that represent your different user types. Typically they are given names and an explanation of their educational background, professional responsibilities, skills, attitudes and goals. This makes it easier for people to visualize and empathize with the intended customer.

The broadest technique is a use scenario or a virtual video. This is a written description of situations from the intended customer’s life that are relevant to the company. A virtual video tends to be a long narrative describing an experience, such as having a software problem and exploring the various ways to get the problem resolved. It could include exploring a support site on the Internet, trying to call the support line, and having an on-line chat with a support representative. Virtual videos can describe either a current situation or an idealized situation in the future.

Few companies have templates and processes for documenting, storing, analyzing and sharing some form of a current or desired user experience in a systematic and repeatable manner. Do you have any feedback with methods that achieve this goal in your company?
 
 
I was reading a study on analytics by Accenture last week and found some statistics that didn’t add up for me. According to some recent research, 55% of executives rated their ability to target customers and provide them relevant experiences as either “ideal” or “very good”. My immediate reaction was that this number seemed unrealistic. Another statistic in the report confirmed my suspicions. Only 21% of consumers believe the companies they choose to do business with are good at providing them with tailored, relevant experiences.

This is quite a difference of opinion. Over half the CEOs think their companies are very good at delivering relevant experiences but only 1 in 5 consumers think they are. Because the consumer is the ultimate judge of the quality of the experiences, I conclude that the CEOs don’t have a realistic assessment of the situation. What accounts for the discrepancy?
 
I found some other statistics that give us some insight. When asked what resources senior managers used when making decisions about what their customers want, the most common response was personal experience. That makes sense. There’s nothing like being on site with customers, seeing their environment first-hand and using all your senses to really understand the customers’ situation and problems. But how often does this happen?
 
I couldn’t find a comprehensive study on the amount of time CEOs spend with customers but I ran across an anecdote about AG Lafley, CEO of Procter & Gamble. You’d assume a B2C company like P&G would invest heavily in understanding the customer up close and personal but Lafley reinstituted consumer home visits and store visits for himself and his senior
executives after discovering that P&Gs product managers spent on average only three percent of their time in contact with end consumers. Personally, I’ve observed very few CEOs that spend much time with customers or when they do it’s to calm down an irate client or to help a salesman close a large order. It’s rare a CEO will take the time to just listen in order to understand what his/her company could be doing better.
 
So here’s my summary. CEOs think they’re doing a much better job than their customers do based primarily on their personal experience from very little customer interaction. Andy Grove said only the paranoid survive. That implies the isolated and complacent have the odds stacked against them. It doesn’t seem like a very solid foundation on which to understand and deliver value.