Customer obsession


I.M. Wright with a light bulb in his mouth.

You love your customers. You care about them. You design for them. But, are you truly obsessed, or do you let technology and personal preferences creep into your decisions and communications?

I sometimes recognize when my personal agenda is creeping in—it requires real vigilance to keep personal bias in check. To help me stay customer-focused, I watch for telltale signs: customer problems written as technical problems, customer communication written from our point of view instead of theirs, and management priorities given precedence over customer priorities.

When I see signs of drift in my customer focus, it's time to reinvigorate my customer obsession. Time to talk to customers. Time to see their problems instead of my solutions. Time to speak with their voice instead of mine. Time to align plans to their priorities instead of ours. How about you? Are you customer obsessed, or are you self-absorbed and self-defeating?

Can you see the real me?

It's so often repeated that it's a cliché: You are not the customer. Even if you deliver class libraries for other engineers, you write the interfaces and your customers and partners build against them. It's not about you. It's not about the technology. It's not about what your boss, program manager, or peer says. It's about the customer. It's always about the customer. (BTW, internal and external partners are key customers.)

Sure, business concerns must be met—we're not a charity (and money is always a concern for charities). But it all starts and ends with the customer.

Sure, management concerns must be appeased and plans must be aligned, but never at the expense of the customer. We must always advocate for customers and defend them.

Sure, there are multiple customer segments and personas (end users, buyers, partners, operators, and management, to name a few), but they're not all equal. Prioritize before you plan, then know and honor your top customers.

Knowing customers is not about imagination and make believe. It's about empathy for customer problems and understanding what customers are trying to accomplish. It's about personal relationships—knowing your customers like you know your family. It’s about hearing and seeing them in your head, feeling like they're with you, and sensing that they are watching what you do and listening to what you say. Whether it's customer visits, usability tests (even for APIs), telemetry, or surveys, you must deeply know and sense your customers.

Eric Aside

For more on understanding customers through data, read Data-driven decisions. For more on the difference between customer suggestions and customer problems, read When the customer is wrong.

Eminence front. It's a put on.

How can you tell if your customer love is no more than platonic? Ask yourself:

  • How much do I talk about the customer with my team? Do I refer to the customer with everything I talk about, or do I pick and choose when I talk about the customer depending on the area?
  • Is the customer the driving force behind all our decisions, with business concerns considered, or is technology the driver? (“Both” is not an acceptable answer. Technology serves the customer, not the other way around. Even researchers should be serving their peers and our customers, not just technology.)
  • Is my prioritization and scoping based on customer feedback, needs, and desires, or is it based on technology, politics, and preferences?
  • Am I bothered when customer problems are framed as technology problems? Does seeing or hearing that make my skin crawl?
  • Are my technology choices based solely on customer impact, with business concerns considered, or are they about technology innovation? (Again, “both” is not an acceptable answer.)
  • Do I meet with my customers where they are whenever possible, rather than having them to come to me?
  • Do customer communications that talk at my customers, rather than taking their viewpoint, embarrass me and make me feel like I just insulted my mother?
  • Do I doubt my own judgement and defer to deeper customer empathy and understanding as needed?

Remember, what you think, and all your experience, is nothing except in so far as it reflects deep empathy and understanding of customers, their problems, and their goals. Whenever there is any doubt or disagreement between your thinking and customer feedback, the answer is always, “I’m clueless. Let’s re-engage the customer and learn.”

Eric Aside

For more on getting customer feedback, read Quality is in the eye of the customer. For more on closing the loop with customers, read "Customer dissatisfaction" (chapter 2).

I really want to know

I could go on, but you probably get the point. Sometimes you might allow technology, rather than customers, to be your focus. Sometimes you might elevate your personal ideas and experience above the customer’s. After all, that’s why you get paid, right? Wrong.

You get paid to use your technical and interpersonal skills to deliver real value to customers that helps them achieve more. Your judgement, experience, and preferences are nothing except in so far as they reflect deep customer empathy and understanding.

Get to know your customers in every way you can. Always have them critiquing and guiding you in your mind. Watch out for personal, technical, and management bias disrupting your passionate customer focus. The more obsessed you are with customers—the more you put your heart and soul into improving their lives—the more you'll win them over and transform our world together.

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