Find your “teacher customer.”

Your customers know what they want more than you do.  Find one to teach you.

This week’s insight came from personal experience and from a good friend who advanced the notion of the “teacher-customer” years ago.  I internalized this phrase, recalling the many times I had partnered with customers to design new feature-functionality into my hotel computer system back when such systems were brand new to the industry.  It was an ideal partnership between my growing company, as it approached one hundred employees on the way to almost two hundred fifty, and selected special customers anxious and willing to spend time telling us of their pain points.

Together we would work out solutions in the form of new functions, new controls, new reports, and new safeguards.  The customer would be the first to receive the new functionality in a new release.

At the annual user conference, I would often make sure the entire user community present knew of these extraordinary collaborations by naming the teacher-customers in the presence of their contemporaries.   Sometimes the audience would cheer one of their own, knowing that everyone benefited from the extra time and effort spent teaching their vendor the needs of the industry not yet addressed by competitors or by our firm to date.

[Email readers, continue here…] This is not to bend this insight into a claim that a company should wait to develop new, groundbreaking products and services until a customer asks for them.  If that were the ideal mode, many game-changing concepts would never have made it to market, including Fred Smith’s FedEx, first explained to a college professor in a paper returned with a C+ grade and the professorial comment that the idea was “good but impractical”.

Even if you are an expert in an industry segment, partnering with one of those rare, willing teacher-customers during the design stage for your proposed product or service is empowering and fruitful for both parties.

All companies whether service or product-oriented must fight to gain and maintain quality of product, or fall to the bottom of the competitive heap.

We have explored feature-functionality. Next week we will focus upon product quality and its effects upon the organization.

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