July 18, 2011

She Loves Me, He Loves Me Not

Nothing gives us more professional satisfaction than winning a customer’s loyalty. We won it by being really good listeners and helping the customer understand the source of their “pain” and show how and why the current system kept breaking down. We developed a plan to strengthen the overall flow of information. The solution was sound, Sandra – our key contact – got the kudos, and everyone at her firm was happy. By the end of that year she had given us several other major problems to solve. Eighty of our engineers were on deck, ticking away at a detailed task list. We had a long-term plan to address a number of systemic issues in place. In Sandra’s eyes, we were superheroes. She was no longer just a satisfied customer; she’d become a loyal friend and creative partner. These are the relationships that give new life and meaning to the expression “it’s a pleasure doing business with you.”

Then Sandra got promoted, and the next thing we knew we were sitting at a conference table with her successor. This new CIO didn’t know us. He questioned the allocated budget. He scratched his head as he flipped through the progress report, and openly expressed his doubts. “I just can’t see that you guys are worth the money. My in-house engineers can work on this stuff.” In his eyes we weren’t even ordinary heroes; we were an expense he had to shoulder and justify. Whereas Sandra valued us like no tomorrow, the new boss felt saddled with a heavy weight. He just couldn’t get a bead on the long-term plan we had constructed with Sandra. We went from being her hero to being a thorn in his side. These are the relationships that give us, as service providers, pause to wonder: Are we spinning our wheels here? If only the man would let us do our job!

Here are four lessons we learned:

  1. Be everyone’s hero, not just the primary contact.  Diversify your contacts within the customer’s organization.  Meet as many managers and directors as possible; form relationships throughout the organization; collect data to demonstrate ROI whenever possible; work with each department on specific problems.
  2. Get to know senior staff and — even more important — find out what their problems and efficiency concerns are. Don’t assume that a smile and a nod in meetings means someone intends to continue approving the current software development budget.
  3. Always, always do good work. Address every concern. Fix every bug. Treat each problem as if the entire PSA depends on it — because it does. Ask for feedback at every turn. This is what makes for solid partnerships. Little problems don’t add up if you maintain open communication on an ongoing basis.
  4. Be transparent every step of the way. Make the work you do visible to the customer. Make a written report as often as they’ll let you. Keep them apprised of all the in-between stages as well as necessary side roads and detours. Show them rather than tell them. This allows the customer to see why it’s called customized software. This allows them to experience the value proposition in real time, not just in the conference room.