Who influences your product direction decisions?

"I know what customers want. I've been in this business for a long time. We are forging a new direction and customers don't know what they want until we define it for them... "

How many times have you heard declarations like the comments above. Typically, product direction is driven by two types of power; people in leadership positions and/or people who are the declared subject matter "experts." In fact, these are the two primary influences on decision-making in most organizations. "I'm the boss and I will tell you what our product should look like" or "I have been in this business for 25 years and I know what customers really value." All too often the customer is left out of the equation or has a very small part to play in the product definition process.

We were told on a recent project that customers wanted an integrated solution so they could reduce energy consumption in a facility. The "expert" that told us this was convinced that his position was 100% accurate. The complete development effort was predicated on this "statement of value." We asked a series of people that effectively represented customers and found out that the target segment had little interest in an integrated solution since it resulted in a compromised technical solution and they wanted the flexibility of configuring different components into a system for both cost and quality reasons.

Further, the cost of the switch-out of the old system in favor of the new system far exceeded the annual cost savings which would result from lower energy consumption (from the new product). We figured this out after just a few conversations with typical fab managers, yet a multimillion dollar development effort and focus of a business unit was based on a subject matter expert's assessment of customer need. These assumptions were never tested nor validated by actual customer feedback.

In normal organizations Position and Expert Power dominate decisions, especially concerning product functionality and roadmaps. In best practice environments the dominate player is the customer (i.e. the voice-of-the-customer). Even in situations where a technology or idea is new, customers will tell you what they value most in the context of the new idea and how it might solve a problem they have or may have in the future.

Many times we don't want to talk to customers since their view may contradict ours... "Once we get the product in their hands they will see the value..." Given the limited development resources today, this kind of "sans-customer" approach to development is rather risky! Further, those inside an organization that know/carry the "VOC information" will trump both expert and position power, if you know how to use it.