In a recent conversation, a long time friend told me how he was spending all his time dealing with internal issues while working on his current project. His team is developing some very interesting technology targeted at users setting up and managing cloud environments in data centers. He is the marketing manager, so of course I asked him about his understanding of what his customers are really up to and how they currently manage to accomplish the work he hopes his product will facilitate. He sighed in resignation and told me no, they had not spent time with customers as they manage their environment.

In his defense, he has a long history of actually going out into the field to gather customer data. He totally gets the value and understands how important it is from previous experience. His response to our discussion about the lack of that understanding in this case was twofold. First, he said he is too busy just managing the internal issues and getting everyone aligned and keeping the project moving forward. Second, he said his boss is not at all supportive of user research. His manager has the attitude—like so many in the world of technology—of “We know our customers… we talk to them all the time.”

While my friend knows the difference between talking to customers and really understanding their environments and the issues they face in day-to-day life, he is not able to convince his management team of that value. This attitude is what I call complacence inertia. I have seen it throughout my career. Product managers are under time pressure, new technologies come along and everyone wants to be first in the marketplace. It’s natural to assume you understand your market and your customers because you talk to them in various forums, but it lulls us into complacence. I choose the word “complacence” because it captures the situation perfectly. The dictionary defines complacence as “a feeling of security while often unaware of potential danger.”

The irony is that the same set of managers would be first to say they want to bring more innovation into their product offerings in order to beat the competition. Where they get mixed up is they assume that technology is what differentiates the product—and that the innovation is in the technology. My experience is that a company can take advantage of a new technology and maybe even be first to market, but what actually differentiates the product is what it does for the customer. Customers often don’t really care about the technology at all—what they care about is how it can be used to make their life better.  

I remember when Fibre Channel, a high speed interconnect protocol for computer storage systems, was new and exciting—to technology companies anyway. My organization was one of the first to put this new technology into systems and ship them to customers. My team and I spent time going into our customers’ environments gaining an understanding of what was happening in large data centers. I wanted to really understand how we could use this technology in useful ways beyond just making things faster.

What we ended up providing customers had little to do with the technology itself. While our solution certainly was enabled by the technology, it wasn’t Fibre Channel that our customers cared about. It was the ability to manage multiple systems as though they were one machine and easily allocate and manage system resources across those systems with high performance. Our solution was much larger than a single technology; it came about because we spent time understanding what was happening in our customers’ environments.

Of course gaining that customer knowledge is not always easy. My colleague recently wrote a blog for PDMA, “Why is listening to the voice of your customer harder than you think?”, which describes nicely the challenges we face in gaining that understanding. But it is possible to do. And it’s the best way to ensure a successful product that beats the competition.

So we come back to the competition point: Technology can enable wonderful things, but the best way to beat your competition is to understand your users’ lives. From that understanding you can generate solutions which are innovative but grounded in solving the problems users may not even be able to tell you they have. My customers would never have told me they needed multiple computer systems working together as one machine, easily configured and managed. They told me about database sizes, numbers of users, application issues, and system management problems.

Now, we were well down the road to shipping our first systems incorporating Fibre Channel before we completed our research and generated our solution ideas. People frequently tell me they don’t have time to do the field work and keep to their product schedule. My simple response is, “pay now or pay later.” If we had just shipped the systems we initially designed, our platform would not have been successful. We would have spent countless engineering months (years?) trying to figure out what was wrong, what should we fix, etc. to get sales up. But because we had our research in hand, we quickly laid out a roadmap to improve our initial shipping product and evolve it into the solution that was extremely successful in the marketplace. Even when you can’t get the resources and time to do field work before a product is well into development, you can still do the field work in parallel and bring that knowledge into play. Especially when the initial product launch may not be as successful as planned, you can lay the groundwork for developing a roadmap to success.

I’ve come to believe that the best way to fight complacency within organizations is to educate management teams about how field research and understanding your customers’ lives is the key to beating your competition. It is a competitive imperative, if you will. Ask yourself, “What’s the one thing my competitors don’t have that I have?” They have access to market data, probably access to new technologies coming along, and they also talk to customers. I would argue what most companies don’t have is a good understanding of actual customer behaviors and motivations at a level of detail that can be used for designing solutions. And this real-world, detailed level of understanding produces solutions that beat the competition every time.

Where will you get your competitive advantage? Convince your team that going into the field and understanding your customer’s motivations and behaviors will give you something that the competition won’t have access to. Why? Because they also suffer from complacency.