Engaging Customers on an Uncertain Journey

While every company has unique policies, politics, and market pressures, the technical challenges are often shared among many

We have all seen tremendous uncertainty in the last few years. Market dynamics are unlike anything we’d seen before, and though we are coming into a phase of apparent recovery, there is a combination of both optimism and anxiety everywhere.

Amidst the pandemic, the push home caused an enormous change in the way we work, and in turn created huge changes in the IT systems we all need to protect. The profiles of network traffic, the need for office functions and services to be supported in the cloud, challenges in managing and maintaining anything using remote teams, securing the enterprise both in the office and at home, the list goes on, are all results of the environment we’re in. 

In addition, the incredible turnover of staff in the last six months has been staggering. There’s a migration of corporate memory that is unlike we’ve seen before, and the combination of these factors creates an environment of unpredictability when not only are the systems changing but the staff maintaining and securing them is changing at the same time. It’s a bit like flying more than one plane, while upgrading both in flight. As if this job wasn’t hard enough!

The push forward for digital products, and the acceleration to transition to the cloud, has had a marked impact on companies that serve every segment of the market. However, it is during these times of great transition that we find there are great opportunities if we can capitalize on them.  In this article, I would like to explore a few recent observations about engaging customers in what I call their change-journey and connect these observations back to the development of great products. 

Prepare For the Company You Are Engaging

This might seem obvious, but every company is different in substantive ways. For instance, a healthcare company has dramatically different concerns from a company that produces sheetrock. Orienting yourself toward what the customer is concerned about is critical. 

Your sales and account representative teams are with the customer day-to-day, and often have great insights – engage them. The goal of this preparation is to anticipate what is keeping customers up at night regarding your products and have as many answers as you can at the ready as possible. This analysis is like doing a strategic or competitive analysis or environmental scan. Look at the type of industry and what laws, regulations, demographics, and other metrics that might either put your product at an advantage or disadvantage in their particular environment. What pressures do they face? How is the environment your product is positioned for, changing?

Engage On These Areas of Change

One of the best approaches to identifying both the value you are bringing to a customer and opportunities to increase that value is by going on the change-journey with your customers. Recently, I met with a great customer who is pivoting away from self-hosting applications. They are moving to a cloud-only infrastructure and are trying mightily to rid themselves of hosting. This developing trend is becoming more common, and it is through this pain-point that a tighter bond between vendor and customer can be made. 

Nobody is on this journey alone. And though every company has unique policies, politics, and market pressures, the technical challenges are often shared among many. In the rare case where there is a customer with a unique challenge, exploring why that is the case, is often a huge help. It is through these areas where great change is happening that a trust relationship can be built. 

If you are the subject matter expert in an area, there is almost nothing more valuable than telling a customer, “Hey, we’ll give you a hand working through this change, and here’s my email address and cell number if you want to pass something by me.” This can’t always be done in all circumstances, but for key customers, this can be gold. 

Don’t Try to Bend the Laws of Physics

Far too often I’ve been on the receiving end of “Yeah! We can do that,” to only find that there were no resources available to make that happen and the comment was much more to keep me hooked than to solve my issue. This is infuriating and serves nobody.

Frank and clear conversations are appreciated. The challenge is to go on the journey with the customer AND have the customer go on the journey with you. Great products evolve, and therefore are never exactly where we want them. Nothing is static or finished, both in products as well as the customer environments. Work with the customer to identify those points where the environments align, and share, if possible, when you anticipate you’ll get to those alignment points. 

I will often explain to customers items on our backlog that are very high priority, and why. This isn’t an excuse for not getting to their ask, nor is it a roadmap review, but it is an honest discussion around the laws of physics your team is dealing with. And circling back to the previous topic, if you can have ongoing conversations on the areas that are changing in the customer, you create the opportunity to anticipate the ask before the ask is made. In those circumstances, you can bring greater clarity to the conversation by having a rough idea of how long something will take and where it might land in the backlog. 

Companies are made up of human beings, doing complex things, with complex products, in ever changing environments. With the rate of change we’re seeing, having a relationship with your customers that has you on the customer journey as well as the customer materially engaged on your product journey instills a trust between you that creates resiliency in the relationship. These conversations are also the generator of great feedback to your development teams. 

Recently I wrote an article about delivering value feedback to your developers and how much of a positive impact that can have on the quality of products. I have found sharing these customer conversations has a tremendously positive impact on the developers and product teams alike. These conversations also fuel future engagements with the customer and instill faith that you are on this ride with them. And though these transition periods are stressful for everyone, having a trusted provider and partner to help you along the way, is invaluable. 

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Keith Ibarguen is Chief Product Officer at Cofense, and has more than 25 years of technical and managerial experience, most recently serving as Chief Engineer for the Law Enforcement and Domestic Security Division at the MITRE Corporation. He has worked to develop and enable novel solutions across a number of MITRE Sponsor and internal programs throughout his career, leveraging his expertise in cyber operations and enterprise cyber security, software development, enterprise IT design and deployment. Throughout his years of service, he has led activities with the DoD, the Intelligence, and Law Enforcement Communities as well as partnered with numerous not for profit and commercial firms.

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