Engage Customers Directly to Build High Quality Software

The previous post described tools and investments for implementing Customer-Driven Quality. Incoming support calls, feedback widgets, and customer usage logs are great ways to get information about your customers, but there are many more insights to be gained by engaging directly with customers.

Social Media

Product specific blogs allow conversations with customers. New features can be announced, articles written to help customers, and conversations happen through the comment feature of popular blog engines. One example where we used blogs effectively in software quality was to influence our customers to upgrade their browser. One quality constraint that we were living with was the support for Internet Explorer 6. A lot of special code had to be written for IE6, and testing multiple browsers reduced the amount of test on any specific browser. Newer alternatives had better security, faster performance, and better compatibility with standards. All aspects of better experience for our customers.

We wrote a series of articles on the blog to influence our customers to upgrade. Each time a new article was published, we saw a reduction in IE6 usage in the web analytics logs. Several customers complained on the blog about being forced to upgrade, but an interesting thing happened, other customers jumped into the conversation to explain the value of upgrading. By upgrading, customers had the benefit of a better internet experience, not just with our app.

Influencing our customers to take some action at the client side is an example of customer-driven quality.

Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and numerous others are other venues for learning about customer’s usage of our products, and an opportunity to communicate with them. Often, customers are posting on these sites their frustrations and joys with our products.  The development and quality teams should be participating in social media.

One huge tip, if you use these social media sites yourself, you should create a new login dedicated to your professional persona. One time, I saw a customer complaining about not being satisfied by the customer support team. I sent him a private message introducing myself as part of the engineering team and offered my help. He never answered me, but the customer support supervisor received a blistering email about me. He saw my personal time posts about german shepherds and fly-fishing, and thought I was goofing off instead of working his problem.  Fair enough.

Now, I’ve created accounts associated with my product team and keep any posts and interactions to business. Keeping my business and personal internet personas is a little extra work, but reduces risk of customers being dissatisfied. (of course, I wish everything would work perfectly for every customer)

Search Engine Strategies

We also use search engines (Google, Bing) to search for our products and what our customers are potentially saying online about our products. Doing this exposed several community forums dedicated to using our product.

Customers will post their likes and dislikes about our products, questions about how to perform a task, and desired new features. This is a good way to gauge the customer’s opinion of our quality.

The search engines have a feature called alerts, which will automatically perform the search specified, and email the results in either a daily digest, or real time. To monitor the “blogosphere,” we’ve set up alerts with Google Alerts. I initially created a search term “<product> sucks” to look for negative sentiment, but that particular search rarely found anything. Instead, I search for just the product name.

Often these searches lead to blogs or forum entries. This allows you to communicate directly with customers experiencing problems (or who may have suggestions to improve).

Talk with Customers

Many of the customer feedback mechanisms provide both the feedback and contact information. One thing our team does is to regularly contact a sample of customers that gave us the gift of feedback. First, we thank the customer for the feedback (positive or negative) then ask follow up questions.  Doing this often fills in the gaps between the brief written note (often 140 characters or less) and what the customer really meant. These conversations can be scary, and I tend to be introverted and don’t have a good gift for gab, but usually these are the best 10 minutes of the day. I come away from these calls energized to build the best product for our customers.


What’s Next

The next few posts on Customer-Driven Quality will describe the practices for each phase of the software-development lifecycle (Define, Build, Test, Support)


2 thoughts on “Engage Customers Directly to Build High Quality Software

  1. Pingback: Tools for Including Customers in your Software Life-cycle

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