May 19, 2015

Dont write Duncan on my cup; just call me Long Black

Making a purchase can feel great when you’ve developed a rapport with the salesperson. Regardless of the product; from a tasty treat at the farmer’s market to a major purchase like a new car; a sale is much more likely when the vendor not only cares deeply about their product but also takes time to understand your needs.

There is an independent coffee shop in Camden, North London that makes a great cup of coffee. There is nothing especially unusual about their set-up aside from high standards and well-sourced beans, but having worked with a client near the shop for a little while I noticed that one unique part of their procedure had me going out of my way to pay them a visit. By the second or third morning of visiting the shop, the proprietor will remember how you like your coffee. During a morning rush, he’ll look up at the queue and call out “latte, flat white with sugar, cappuccino, long black”. If you catch him during a lull, he’ll chat to you about his new spring blend. It was a simple thing, but it drew me back again and again.

Compare this to a similar initiative by a much larger chain of coffee shops who asked their employees to write customers names on the cup where they once wrote the contents of the cup. Reaction was reported to include a feeling of insincerity (and an opportunity to see what things you could have shouted out loud in a crowded shop). Why did this not have the same effect?

I can identify three broad factors in this simple customer interaction that were present in the first example but lacking in the second: Passion for the product; expertise in execution; and a genuine interest in the customer. When all three are present, both the customer and the vendor are effectively collaborating towards the shared goal of a simple but mutually beneficial goal. So how do we scale up this effect from a £2 cup of coffee that has the customer coming back every day, to the development of bespoke products with budgets many orders of magnitude higher?

Passion for the product

Whatever your product is or does, it is unlikely to be successful unless it is led by someone with a passion for its purpose. Last year I worked with a team building a system for delivering groceries to customers in new locations. On the day of the release, the product owner demonstrated her passion for the product by leaving the office and spending the day talking to customers in the field to find out who they were and how they were using this new service.  In doing so she collaborated with her customers directly to verify or adjust the assumptions she had made when deciding to fund development, feeding her insights into later iterations to the benefit of all involved.

Expertise in execution

Building software is inherently complex, and the ability to solve particular types of software problems requires time and experience. Many of the most capable teams I have worked with have had stability in their membership and technology with the autonomy to make meaningful and deliberate changes to evolve their practices.  A team that is trusted in this way will have confidence to collaborate with customers and product owners, built on a foundation of self-beleif in their abilities and value to the organisation. Re-organise personnel, impose technical directives or insist that the team write customers names on a cup, and accountability will evaporate.

Genuine interest in the customer

Whether you are building a product under contract for a specific customer or releasing your own product for public consumption, it’s important to empathise with your customers’ needs.  Thousands of years of evolution have left your customers very well equipped to detect insincerity or profiteering, so it is better to throw yourself into collaboration with your customer to understand and help solve their problem with them.  The result will be a more relevant and valuable product – an outcome that benefits all parties.

Magical combination

If your product team can bring these three factors together, then your customers will go out of their way to come back to your shop.  Effective customer collaboration bassed around a shared goal feels fantastic, and is quite rare.  If you want to sell me something don’t write “Duncan” on my cup; just call me “Long Black”.