Alignment and Listening to the Voice of the Customer

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The Voice of the Customer is the only voice that matters.

“Give the lady what she wants.” – Marshall Field

Marshall Field, the legendary merchant whose chain of Chicago-based department stores bore his name left a legacy of retail success based on listening to the voice of his customers.

Technology Architects, Business and Systems Analysts, User Experience Designers and others in the Information Technology field are smart people. They deal with complexity well. Some of them even seem to prefer complexity over simplicity. They design systems based on “industry best practices” and “technology imperatives and guiding principles”. Sometimes however, in the deep waters of these important bodies of knowledge the customers voice gets drowned out.

I count myself among these technology people who come to design meetings with the questionable assumption that what I think you need is at least as important as what you want. That’s rarely the case. No design input is more important than the voice of the customer at the beginning of design process, in the middle of it, and before anybody can say they’re done.  

This doesn’t mean that what we, the technologists, have learned over the years, through research, education, and real-world experience isn’t valuable. Of course, it is. This doesn’t mean that the customer is never wrong. Sorry, Mr. Field, sometimes they are. What it means is that there is no other voice that is more important than the customer’s voice. There is no vision that is more important than the customer’s vision. It’s our job, as technologists, to understand what the customer wants and needs no matter how they express it. As Stephen Covey might say, we must seek “first to understand, then to be understood.” Find out what the main thing is. Then, again relying on Covey, “keep the main thing the main thing.” 

The customer’s point of view is almost always about business value. It’s not about leading-edge technology or best practices. Listen carefully to the business value part of the conversation. That’s the essence of the vision. Then, and only then, apply your knowledge, skills, and experience to creating an implementation of that vision. Most of the time, the customer just wants nothing more than a means for non-technical people to do their jobs efficiently and without drama. Nothing more and nothing less. Everything else, no matter how important to scalability, sustainability and all the other technical “ilities”, is secondary.