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When The Going Gets Tough – R&D Calls With Customers – Doing It Right!
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When The Going Gets Tough – R&D Calls With Customers – Doing It Right!

Several years ago, I joined the development team of a new product within Imperva. I discovered that direct interaction between us developers and our customers was much more frequent than on more mature products – customer calls are an invaluable tool when developing from scratch.

However, these calls may also be intimidating for a developer, as they were to me at first. It took a while – and some new thought patterns and techniques – before my feelings of hesitance and intimidation from these calls turned to appreciation, gratitude, and even enjoyment!

In this post I’d like to share some pointers, tips and methods that I’ve used to maximize the ROI we can get from calls of this sort.
So let’s get started!

When a developer meets the customer

If you’re a software developer like me, you probably like writing code, designing systems, and solving problems. Direct calls with customers are a rarer occurrence, and may be intimidating for a number of reasons:

  1. You’re not used to this! What if you say something wrong? Can you commit to things such as new features?
  2. You aren’t sure how to assist. You might not be sure at this point what’s causing the issue, nor how to solve it. What if you can’t provide the help they need?
  3. The customer is demanding (and rightfully so!). They expect (and deserve) good and quick solutions to whatever issue they’re facing.

Why are these calls so important

According to the Harvard Business review, acquiring a new customer can be anywhere from five to 25 times more expensive than retaining an existing one.
This means it’s worth working very hard on retaining an existing customer.
If this customer puts in the time and effort to acquire, install and run the software you wrote, they deserve – and should get – the best possible support from all levels of your organization.

How to win these calls

Successful customer calls require preparation, planning, focus during the call, and follow up afterwards.

Before all that, however, you have to approach a customer call with the right mindset and attitude if you want to win it.

This call is a good thing!

It means the customer is using your product and wants it to work – they haven’t given up on you, or decided to replace you with the competition

Invaluable insights!

So much effort goes into trying to learn what the customer wants, uses, and likes.
So many user stories are defined by people that try to learn and feel the field.
Well, here’s a real user, with a real story – and an opportunity for true and honest feedback. It may not always be nice to hear, and you might get criticism, but it is real.
“Feedback is the breakfast of champions.”
~Ken Blanchard

You were born to make them happy

This may sound a bit extreme – but it is true on many levels!
You were – or your company was – born to make them happy. They’re the reason you do what you do, and they have the means to enable you to keep on doing it. If not for them – and all the rest of your customers – you wouldn’t have a job.

Now that you’re in the right mindset, let’s dive into the nitty gritty of what, when and how to win these calls.

Before the call

Come prepared – their time and yours is valuable.

Technical preparation

  1. Understand in depth what’s bothering them before the call
  2. Gather all possible raw data prior to the meeting, so you can analyze it
  3. Try to have all of your answers, additional questions, possible scripts to run, and different scenarios planned out ahead of time
  4. Plan the call – make a list of things you will do, their order, what-ifs, potential questions, and more.

Organizational preparation

These calls tend to have multiple participants from different areas of your company, some of whom you may not even know.
Best practice here is to have a short prep session – and if that’s not possible, then an email should help.

A successful prep session will result in:

  1. Getting to know call participants from your organization and their roles
  2. Knowledge of expected participants from the customer’s side and their roles
  3. Planned call flow, and who’ll be leading the call from your end
  4. A shared understanding of the exact issue the customer is facing

Call Leveraging

You want to give the customer the best call experience, and get the most of the call for your organization.
Plan two or three questions you’d most want to hear the customer’s response to. They don’t have to be directly related to the subject of the call. If time permits, and the setting is right, ask these at the end of the call. It will give you great insight, and also show the customer that you value their input and opinion.

During the call

This is where the magic happens, by which I mean you achieving the best possible outcomes from a situation that may not, at times, be easy, simple or comfortable.
Remember, there’s a good chance they might have been waiting for this call for quite a while now, and might be experiencing some frustration while using your product.

Greetings

Start off by introducing the team, and asking them to do the same. Since these calls are usually international, this is a good place to break the ice with their location and timezone: “Good morning there in the North Pole!”

They talk, you listen

Before you offer advice, solutions, workarounds, or general statements about what the product should or shouldn’t do, be sure that you understand EXACTLY what’s bothering them. These tech issues tend to be complicated as is – adding extra confusion or imprecise advice will not help anyone involved.

Let them talk and explain what’s bothering them, even if you know it already.
Why do this?

  1. Something might have changed since the last time they updated you
  2. Some information might have been lost or modified in transit from their end to yours
  3. This will be a start for the discussion of how to truly understand their needs, which is what we do next

Reflection – understand their motivation, understand their pain

Be sure you understand what they’re trying to do, why they’re trying to do it, and the impact of not being able to do it.
At this stage you’ll be repeating a lot of what they’re saying, just to make sure you’ve got it right. This is beneficial in any important conversation, and especially in meetings by phone or video conferencing.
Be empathetic in the process, and show that you care.
This process will give you a better and deeper understanding of the situation:

  1. Maybe what they’re trying to achieve can be done differently?
  2. Maybe there’s a gap between what they expect to happen and what the product actually does?
  3. Maybe the impact of the issue at hand is lower or higher than you initially thought?

Talk with integrity

Now that you fully understand the situation, you can proceed. It’s very important to build a constructive relationship with your customers. The base of this is integrity:

  1. Be honest about the product’s abilities. If they expect something that it doesn’t do, then consider it for the future
  2. Be careful when committing to timelines that weren’t pre-planned. It’s best to discuss these internally right after the call, and promptly get back to the customer, rather than committing to a date that isn’t properly planned or – even worse – isn’t realistic

Provide at least one win for the customer

You might not solve all of the issues in one call.
You might not even be able to solve some of their issues at all.
That’s why this part is so important. Try to have at least one – preferably pre-planned – area where the customer will feel that you helped, solved, or promoted their issue.

Say thank you!

Say thank you – they’re helping you more than you’re helping them. That’s right – not just as much, but MORE.
Their feedback and insights will help improve the product for all of your customers.

After the call

The call is over – congratulations!
I hope it went well for you. Now’s the time to follow up on everything that was raised in the call:

  1. Monitor all commitments you made to the customer
  2. Open feature requests they had or that you thought of during the call
  3. Try to think of how you can avoid this issue in the future, or help others to solve or improve their experience
  4. Write down a summary of the call and the above items and send it to all participants from your company, to make sure everyone is aligned and sees things the same way. Spoiler – the more participants there are, the less true this will be. It’s great to discuss the call in order to reach the best conclusions

Wrapping up

I do hope I’ve managed to give you some useful pointers and methods to help you with your next customer call. As a developer, this isn’t your day-to-day standard activity, and may, at times, seem out of scope, but let me leave you with this wonderful quote from Tony Hsieh: “Customer service shouldn’t just be a department, it should be the entire company.”