Origin Story: Traditionally and stereotypically, many of the engineers we work with just want to build products, code solutions, and not necessarily sit in long meetings with customers.
We are so proud of our teams of engineers, who proactively came up to me back in 2020, stating, “Jin, Chuy, we’d like to sit in on more customer sessions and hear from them what worked, what didn’t, and how we can build better products for them. How can we make this happen?”
This was the conversation that birthed Vendavo’s first Customer Research Program.
What is the Customer Research Program?
What started as a request to fill out a short survey evolved into a 6-month program, executed twice yearly. If you ask a lot of software teams running customer sessions, you often hear how they sit with customers for a session (no strings attached!), listen to the feedback, and then we take it back internally to decide whether or not to add it to the roadmap – no follow-ups or iterative feedback. Did these decisions benefit the customers? It’s hard to know.
The method works to gather feedback and build products needed by customers immediately, but due to the turnaround time and the ‘no strings attached’ situation..? Customers lose interest, or decide those changes are no longer relevant and there is something else they prefer for the capabilities. The benefits fade quickly.
We took a more thoughtful approach with this program. We are, and continue to be, committed to partnering with our participating customers. So yes, we sit and listen to our customers, but we don’t stop at doing it only once. Everyone who attends agrees to a set period, a set scope of improvements/enhancements, and we were strategic in ensuring participating customers are actively participating to enhance the software. The conversion on updates and upgrades has increased partly due to the engagement and dedication of everyone during the program.
We Took a Two-pronged Approach
First: We built and rolled out a comprehensive 15-minute survey to understand high-level challenges and pain points that customers identified as areas of improvement. This is a small, easy commitment for participants and allowed us to get the breadth of feedback we needed.
Second: For those customers willing to commit the time and participate we set up two deep-dive sessions to:
- Review of their implementation and identify improvement opportunities
- Review of the created enhancements prototypes
Here’s an outline that we see work well in the second phase, as we:
- Host deep-dive sessions that gather initial information
- Consolidate, prioritize, and decide on which features are on the roadmap
- Provide participants an update on what made it and the general timing of items
- Build prototypes and/or the features
- Follow-up deep dive for customers to test and validate
- Iterate on the products from the responses from the tests
Through our Customer Research Program, we create stronger, peer-proven, more relevant solutions that benefit the greater community.
Execution of the Customer Research Program
好的开始是成功的一半 – which translates to “a good start leads to half of the success.”
This was a lesson I learnt while young and continue to embrace in all I do. And so, we planned. We planned extensively and comprehensively, and we continue to evolve how we planned and how we executed:
- Partner and collaborate with cross-functional Vendavo and customer teams.
- Key to success: ensuring all the key stakeholders are involved and provide their buy- in throughout the process.
- Set up communication protocols with the customers and internally
- Keep communications purposefully simple and repeatable
- Know the roles in the room and speak to those in terms they are used to. Engineers are not generally trained to speak in the same terms that champions at the customer might.
- Coaching and training is important
- Ensure execution and longevity of the program of the program.
- Key to success: Document the process (including process, templates, and one-off scenarios).
Scuba divers know that successfully visualizing maintaining buoyancy and imagining being successful in their dive contributes significantly to a successful dive. Producing (and visualizing) successful Customer Research Programs allows us to make that success repeatable across all product lines and the organization. Lukas Kvapil, an engineering manager at Vendavo, notes it well: “I find having this process well-documented is great, because any other team can read it, do changes related to their needs, and adopt it.”
How Is It Going?
We are currently finishing up our latest program and overall, we are seeing success for our internal teams and the customers who have been participating. Our survey correspondents have increased 3.6x since the pilot and doubling the participation in deeper-dive sessions.
More responses on the survey means more focus and interest in product capabilities. We’re proud of the growth in participation in deep dives but also want to keep them relatively small to provide the right focus and conversations.
One major Pharma customer who finished the deep dives with us upgraded within two weeks of the release, and continues to update to new versions more quickly than they have in the past.
Another customer shared that “the resulting presentation of the solution had much more than (what) I was looking to (solve.) The team we engaged with have provided us with a solution that’s going to be very beneficial for our company.”
We are getting close to sharing the most recent results, prototypes, and designs with our participants in our next deep-dive session. Soon thereafter we will also be gearing up for the Spring cohort.
Learnings From the Team
It takes a team to drive programs like the Vendavo Customer Research Program, and we wanted to leave you with key takeaways from the authors behind this article:
Jin Yeoh (Product Manager)
The “voice of the customer” is important. But to make a difference, we need to not just hear what our a customer has to say, but listen for what’s between the lines, understand what’s going on underneath the iceberg, tease out the monsters and figure out how to slay them. The program allows us the space and time to accomplish this and enables us not just to solve ‘symptoms’ of customer pain points but resolve and focus on helping customers achieve their business goals through the processes that they have established.
Jesus Salcedo (Director of UX)
A lot of the Customer Research Program is simply UX research, which typically happens at Vendavo without the firsthand participation of Product Owners (POs) and Product Managers. Usually, UX engages with users, synthesizes what we heard, and then relays the insights back to the product team. Product Owners and Product Managers have a different view of their products and their users and that difference in perspective helps deliver a better final product.
It was great teaching Product Owners how to engage with users. The first time we hosted the program, I led most of the customer interviews and provided some guidance to them on an as-needed basis. Humans in general want to fix things immediately but UX research is not about immediately fixing so I shared some tips with the team. Things like, don’t cut off a user to say you have a solution. These calls are not about solutioning anything, they’re about listening, so let’s keep quiet and listen to everything this user has to say. If you need to interrupt them, do it to ask them deeper questions. Get to the root cause of their issue/challenge. Then we can come back as a team and align on what we heard and how we can solve for the greatest number of users/customers. To my surprise, these teachings worked and during the next time, the Product Owners led the interviews!
Lukas Kvapil (Engineering Manager)
The Customer Research Program is a great way to get engineering closer to our customers and to learn how our customers use our products and how customized their environments are. Also, improvement suggestions directly from our customers help us with prioritization, and each new version with these improvements gives our customers reason to upgrade, which is beneficial for both sides.
Pavel Kucera (Product Owner)
My strongest takeaway is that we are assuring ourselves, throughout this program, that we won’t be doing any features in vain or without meeting the customer’s true needs. We can better understand their business which is essential for us as our product could be heavily customized, but there are still a lot of things common for basically any configuration. Our primary goal is not to please just one customer but to offer something which should be useful for everyone.
Roman Bliznak (Product Owner)
You can think you have great ideas/proposals about new features but you never know if the customer really needs/uses them until you see him/her using our product. The Customer Research Program is very beneficial, mainly for us because we have a unique opportunity to see customers using our product, how they behave in the application, where they (don’t) click, etc. Though I believe this is mutual as customers are pleased they can share their observations and pains with us.