Categories: Our Methodology


Sam Bayer


The power of customer focus groups

A couple of  weeks ago, we staged our second Customer Focus Group on our soon to be released eInvoice capability for SAP.  I’ve been thinking about it ever since and wanted to share with you what that event looked like from my eyes.

First a bit of background.

I staged my first Customer Focus Group (CFG) almost 20 years ago.  Since then, I must have facilitated hundreds of them and helped dozens of companies embrace the technique as they wrestled with their own personal Agile journeys.  Back in 2001, I wrote an Executive Report for The Cutter Consortium entitled “Customer Focused Development: The Art and Science of Conversing with Customers”.  (Here is an Executive Summary.  Write me if you want the full article.)  Needless to say, I’m not only a fan, but arguably the leading expert on the subject of the value that Customer Focus Groups bring to software companies. So it should come as no surprise that CFGs are at the heart of all of Corevist’s product development and project implementation efforts.

There are three major reasons why we structure our development/implementation lifecycles around CFGs:

  1. Validate Value – Simply put, if we invite people to give us regular feedback on something that we are producing for them and they don’t show up, than what they’re really telling us is that we’re not working on anything of value to them.  I don’t care how great we think the idea is, if no one is interested in it, we have no business working on it.
  2. Establish Incremental Deadlines – Nothing focuses the mind like an upcoming CFG.  In essence, CFGs are dress rehearsal “GoLive” events.  We use these CFGs as assessment tools of our productivity, quality and overall readiness to release.  A lot of project progress is made in the hours immediately preceding one of these events.  CFGs catalyze forward momentum for our projects.
  3. Embrace Feedback – Of course the process of “threatening to put something into production” always generates a lot of great feedback for us.  This is the part of the CFG that we live for.  We really want to know how to make our work product as valuable as possible for our clients! And… what doesn’t kill us, only makes us stronger.

So much for the background.  Now for my reflections.

Validate Value – I have no doubt that our eInvoice capability will be a hit with our Clients and their Customers. We literally had a sellout crowd in attendance.  Our existing clients all showed up, as well as a few (hopefully) “soon to be clients” were also in attendance.  Being able to find, reprint or download invoices, credit memos, debit memos etc directly from SAP over the web, makes life easier for everyone…and greener.

Deadlines – Our second CFG forced us to solve a lot of important technical challenges, including demonstrating our eInvoice capability against a live SAP system.  We also dealt with almost all of the 40 +/- issues that were uncovered in the first CFG.  So, I would say that going into this second CFG we were still very much on track to go into production by our original launch deadline of March 17th.  Which leads me to the next topic…

Embrace Feedback – I love this business because there is always something new to learn, and CFGs provide the perfect learning environment.  Although you have to be prepared to have some of those  learnings to wreak havoc with your plans :-(

What we learned at our second CFG was that to make our eInvoicing capability really valuable, we needed to incorporate a view into payments made against the invoices that we display.  That’s especially true for the “open items” because that’s where many accounting disputes show up.  Our original requirements didn’t account for our Client’s customers “short paying” invoices.  Evidently, that’s a frequent occurrence for some of our clients…and probably an increasing one with the current state of our economy.

To make a long story short, we’ve decided to immediately embrace some payment related suggestions into our first release.  An extensive handling of payments goes onto our product backlog and awaits further input from the customer base after we go into production.

And as far as the launch date is concerned…well, we could declare a shallow victory by launching what we have on March 17. But if no one is going to use it, did we really launch anything?  We think not.  So we’re actually in the process of negotiating a date for our first pilot GoLive with Nordson.  I suspect that will be in early April.

So…the bad news is that we’re a little delayed with respect to the original plan.  But without that original plan, and the two CFGs that we staged, we probably would still be hallucinating the market requirements and spit polishing never to be used features.  The good news is that we now know we have a winner on our hands and clearly understand what it’s going to take to make it happen.

That’s why we love Customer Focus Groups.  That’s the Agile Way!

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