Know Thy Customer

I’ve been tasked with an interesting problem: encourage the Creative department to migrate away from their current project tracking tool and into Jira. For those of you unfamiliar with Jira, it is a bug tracking tool with a bunch of toys and goodies built in to help keep track of everything from hours to subversion check-in number. From a developer’s point of view, there are more neat things than you could shake a stick at. From an outsider’s perspective, it is a big, complicated and confusing system with more secrets and challenges than one could ever imagine.

Years ago, I built a project tracking system for the Creative department at my current company which they use for everything. More projects come and go through the Creative project queue than I had planned on, but it has held together reasonably well. That said, the Engineering director would like to get everyone in the company on the same set of software in order to streamline maintenance efforts.

In theory, this unification makes lots of good sense. Less money will be spent maintaining disparate software and more will be spent on keeping things tidy, making for a smooth experience for all involved.

Unsurprisingly, I was met with resistance from the Director of Communications. She told me she was concerned about the glut of features and functions she had no use for. She prefers the simple system because the creative team is a small team of three. Tracking all of the projects a small team has is just challenging enough to require a small system, but not so challenging that she needed all the heavyweight tools a team of 50-100 people would.

I am currently acting as negotiator between the Engineering and Creative departments. Proposals and counter proposals are being thrown back and forth and I’m caught in the middle. The challenge I see sneaking about in the grass is that the Engineering team doesn’t know their customer.

This doesn’t mean the Engineering team is bad. It doesn’t mean they don’t care. It simply means they don’t live in the same headspace the Creative team does and they don’t have enough time to think about it.

This puts me in a sticky situation.

I worked exclusively with the Creative team for the first two years I was with the company. I ate lunch with them, worked with them, met their deadlines, played by their rules and build 95% of the tools they use today. It was a really great insight into what a creative time is really like. Something many engineers never have the opportunity to experience.

Now, I am part of the Engineering team again and playing by their rules. Engineers think differently. I am an engineer and my father was an engineer before me. I know a thing or two about engineers and their quirks. Ultimately, I can see both sides of the argument and the standoff is looking a little hairy.

“So, where are you going with all this,” you might ask.

If you are going to propose a solution to a problem, instead of learning all you can about the solution you are going to offer, learn about your customer instead. Don’t try to shoehorn a customer into a solution saying “it kind of does most of what you need as long as you need the stuff it does.” It will never work out for you.

Learn your customer’s language. Uncover little secrets about them and figure out how they really work. Customers will rarely pony up and say “here’s everything you need to know about us and our problem.” Almost always, they say “here is our problem. Fix it.”

If you don’t know your customer, you’ll never solve their problem. If, on the other hand, you DO know your customer, you have a fighting chance. Mind you, even if you know your customer, they may still disregard your solution anyway, but at least you know you gave them the best you had.

Don’t fret if it takes some time to learn to think like your customers, though. It’s not something that comes overnight. I know it took a while for me to stop thinking like an engineer for 30 seconds and think like a designer. One day, I woke up and everything had to be diagrammed. There were so many things which could only be said through images. The shift happened and the code disappeared.

Look for the transparency. If you can stop and step into your customer’s head for a few minutes you may discover that the real problem is not the issue they have with the solution you offered, it may be with the solution that doesn’t solve their problem. Creatives, engineers, accountants, executives and marketing people all work in different ways. Businesses are much the same. Find how their problem is different and you will find the solution. Know thy customer and make the web a better place.

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