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Tom Allensworth

A Blast from the Past! Part 1

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This editorial was written for our first edition that was published on March 1st, 1997.---------------------------------------------------------------------------------

The Customer's Voice

It is a funny thing about being heard by manufacturers. When does a customer's voice get heard? Let us count the ways (in ascending importance):

  • When there is enough negative user feedback via their support system?
  • When the negative feedback starts to accumulate like a Michigan snow in the REC.AVIATION.SIMULATION newsgroup? (do they even read REC.AV.SIM???)
  • When users, through whatever medium available, start to compare their software to yellow, tangy fruit?
  • When users, collectively, take out a full page advertisement in the New York Times and state, very publically what a pile of malorderous dung this software is?
  • When sales plummet like a Cessna without wings?

Unfortunately for consumers, only the last of these really gets the attention of most desk bound managers. Don't get us wrong... All of these will get the attention of managers to one degree or another, but it is only this last one that will upset the inertia and get management to mobilize. Or so it seems anyway. That's too bad. "Good management" is defined by the maxim, "anticipate, and don't let surprises happen". Its a wonder to us then that management in the modern day software industry seems to be continually surprised. If they are not listening to their customer support lines, not reading our complaints in the newsgroups, don't take comparisons to lemons very seriously, and don't read the New York Times, then what does it take to shake them out of their slumber and alert them to a significant problem with their product? More importantly, at what point does the cresendo move them off top-dead-center and start them down the path of problem rectification? The staff of AVSIM Magazine have "real" jobs in the manufacturing business in one form or another and have all personally experienced reticent management, costly changes to software baselines, unheeded customer complaints, ad nauseam. We certainly understand the motivation to get a product launched and the revenue flow (and the investment payback) occuring as quickly as possible. Having been there ourselves, it is very easy for us to put on the shoes of all manufacturers, especially software producers. We've been there and done that, in spades. Having the benefit of that perspective however, leads us to this editorial. In an ideal world, the Sales and Marketing organizations within a company are the voice and singular representative of the customer. If one group has the responsibility for customer advocacy it is one or both of these. It is their responsibility to read the "tea leaves" of customer satisfaction (or ire as the case may be), and convey those findings to management. They represent your views and provide the strategies that companies grow with - strategies that should meet your needs as a consumer of thier product. No other organization within a company has the charter to represent the customer as do these two. When one or both of these organizations abdicate or divorce themselves from their responsibilities, loose the vision, or get the strategies muddled, the result is too often a customer advocacy structure that is hide bound and driven by forecast or quota rather than customer satisfaction and product improvement. In short, we as consumers loose the benefit of having an "internal voice" within that company that we rely upon. When this state of affairs takes place, there are usually movements within the organization to fill the void. There are numerous groups within companies that want the role of customer's voice. Too frequently, engineering becomes the main customer interface. Why? Engineering, next to sales and marketing, carries the banner of customer needs and satisfaction. The result is an organization that is driven by engineering, not by the market. Notice that we didn't say Marketing... We said market, as in Market Forces. As in "satisfy the market forces or die on the vine". Engineers, and especially software engineers, have an inherent flaw in vision when it comes to customers (in our humble opinion as former engineers ourselves); life would be perfect if it weren't for customers. This view of customers too often leads to development programs that contain flawed assumptions - assumptions that you and I "should" understand (and by implication, agree with). Not too far down the development path, these assumptions get locked into place, and viola, what had been an assumption is now a core piece of the developed product. Can you guess what happens next? The product hits the street and you and I scratch our heads wondering where the assumption came from that drove that bit or piece of our software in the first place and worse, wonder how it could be so wrong. A simple example; a hardcoded installation program that assumes that you have installed your flight simulator in C:\FLTSIM. Because it is hardcoded, it won't allow you to install it anywhere else. We don't see too many of those types of software bloopers anymore, but there are numerous other examples of equally dumb fundamental assumptions that you and we live with everyday. All of these result, in their most basic form, from lack of understanding, non-existent or apathetic dialog with the customer, lack of follow-up and follow-through, and possibly even arrogance... as in; "we know what is best for the customer". Unfortunately for engineers and fortunately for us, at some point even the most unenlightened management steps in and says "Yes, true, but if it weren't for those customers, you wouldn't have a job.". Unfortunately for the unelightened, customers often react a lot sooner than they. We always have the right to vote with our wallet. And vote we do.

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