Quality as Partnership

[This post is the second of a series defining software quality].

The quality of the partnership between software vendor and customer provides the foundation for providing quality software to the customer. While the software vendor can do many things to improve quality, without continued involvement of customers any such efforts will fail to deliver the level of quality customers need and deserve.

Traditional marketing efforts do not add up to partnership. While important, neither outbound messaging (i.e. newsletters, press releases) nor inbound data collection (customer satisfaction surveys, listening tours, suggestion boxes) are sufficient to impact software product quality. Conversational efforts (user group enhancement sessions, focus groups) provide richer information for quality improvement but are one time or periodic events which still uncover too little. User advisory committees provide an ongoing forum for partnership, yet are limited to a handful of customers. Implementing a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system helps organize all these traditional communications and extends the reach of communications to all customers, but communications alone are not partnership.

Paul Greenberg points out the difference between communications and partnership in advocating Social CRM as an extension to traditional CRM:

Social CRM is based on the ability of a company to meet the personal agendas of their customers while at the same time meeting the objectives of their own business plan. It’s aimed at customer engagement rather than customer management. [emphasis in original]

It is this engagement that transforms communication into partnership. Note that Greenberg identifies personal agendas as the key prerequisite for engagement. Transforming a traditional CRM into a Social CRM means enabling and encouraging the personal agendas of customers. These personal agendas comprise the definition of quality for a software product. Quality is defined by customers, not any internally derived statistical measures (e.g. bugs per line of code). Identifying and developing personal agendas has been a big challenge for software vendors.

Fortunately the Web 2.0 tool set directly addresses and elevates the personal over the vendor- centric view of quality — hence partnership as Quality 2.0. [Greenberg surveys an extensive list of tools, the following includes those HarrisData has deployed]. For example outbound communications may be transformed into conversations through webinars (HarrisData Lunch & Learn), on demand presentations ( HarrisData Coffee Break Learning Series), telepresence meetings (Webex), and blogging (HarrisDataBlog). Focus groups and suggestion boxes can become extended conversations through bulletin boards and wikis (via the HarrisData Customer Zone). User advisory committees can be empowered to include all customers through social networking (HarrisData’s Linked-In page). Please note that these tools extend the management framework of our 15 year investment in traditional CRM (CustomerFirst, WebFirst) which includes powerful incident and problem management work flows, problem search and customer self service capabilities. Implementation of Web 2.0 is technically easy and inexpensive, but tools alone do not create a community based in partnership.

The partnership is based on the vendor and customer recognizing each others’ personal agendas. It is absolutely essential that the vendor truly values the customer agendas, and does so in a way the customer recognizes and believes. In short the Software vendor needs to be authentic when interacting with customers. Customers measure authenticity in every action by every vendor employee. Thus authentic respect for and value of customer personal agendas must be the core culture of the software vendor.

HarrisData’s culture included a strong respect for customers over its entire 38 year history. However for the first 20+ years this cultural value was in the background, not the foreground of employee recognition and management metrics. HarrisData’s Board of Directors identified this latent respect for customers as a key competitive strength and 15 years ago formalized respect for customers as the primary basis for all internal decisions – the HarrisData Aggressive Quality Initiative. Each action we take is prioritized by the same metric – the cumulative business value achieved by HarrisData customers as a result of our action. All HarrisData employees are encouraged and empowered to take actions which benefit our customers, and they receive recognition for doing so.

One example highlights the power of authentic respect for customer agendas. 7 Years ago our admin employees observed that negotiating and then enforcing software license agreements not only enraged customers but also consumed internal resources in administration, support, sales, and management. At the time, Harrisdata offered a typical software license format designed to protect our intellectual property rights. If HarrisData could put a better license agreement in place that did not impinge on our customers’ freedom to run their businesses everybody involved would win. We learned the customer agenda for software licensing and published it as the Software Customer’s Bill of Rights, then put it in writing as the Omni-License. [ed. Then marketing put a bow around it by naming the results and producing press releases]. One big result, new customers are not on edge from tense negotiations to obtain reasonable license terms when the implementation project kicks off leading to a better working relationship throughout the implementation project.

In review, there are 3 requirements for partnership as quality: a traditional CRM managing communications processes, a set of social media tools, and an authentic vendor culture focused on the personal agenda of customers. Satisfying these requirements creates the environment for Quality 2.0.

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