Managing Expectations: The Myth of the Non-Existent Timeline

If you live and work on planet Earth then you’ve experienced something like this:

Joe: Hey Suzie, can you get me X.

Suzie: You betcha’, but I’m pretty swamped right now. When do you need it?

Joe: No rush… whenever you get to it.

managing expectations

Joe and Suzie think they’re on the same page. Solid.

It seems like a harmless exchange so far. Unfortunately, there’s a decent chance this relationship is about to take a nasty hit. Remember, Suzie said she was busy. What happens to a task that doesn’t have a defined timeline when you’re busy? Usually, nothing. Fast forward 3 weeks…Suzie’s been tied up with “high priority” tasks, some of them were even items for Joe:

Joe (now frustrated): Hey Suzie, where is X?

Suzie (sensing Joe’s frustration and getting defensive): I just haven’t been able to get to it. I thought you needed it “whenever…”

Joe: Well yeah, but that was like 3 weeks ago. What have you been doing all this time? This is a small task!

Suzie: Fine! I’ll drop everything and have it for you tomorrow.

Joe: Fine!

Suzie: Yeah, fine!

miscommunication leads to anger

Turns out, Joe and Suzie weren’t even reading the same book.

Boy…That escalated quickly. The problem all started when Suzie and Joe decided to move forward without agreeing on a delivery date.

Every request comes with an expectation of when it will be delivered, even if the requester can’t or won’t identify it. When someone says “Whenever you get to it” they really mean “This is a really easy task and surely you’ll get it before the next board meeting in 3 weeks, so I’m not going to be pushy and set a date.” Or even “I know when I need it, but I’m not going to tell you because maybe then I’ll get it early.” Or maybe they just haven’t consciously acknowledged that there is a date they need it by. Whatever the case, it’s trouble.

Here’s a personal experience: A few years ago I decided to lease my first brand new car. Upon closing the deal I told my dealer that I was in no rush and that it was ok if it took a week or two to get the car delivered. And I wasn’t lying, it really didn’t matter to me. However, the dealer insisted he was getting me into my new car by the end of the week. It was important to him! With his assurances in mind, every day that week I got a little more excited about my new car and by Friday, I was stoked to go pick up my new ride. So, when I found out my car wasn’t ready, I was pretty annoyed. I grew increasingly annoyed and ended up flat out mad as more days went by. Finally, the car arrived about a week later. It didn’t matter that I’d started out with no firm delivery date in mind, the dealer set a date of his choosing and then missed it, turning a win into a loss by mismanaging my expectations.

So, what should you do when a client asks you to accomplish something but doesn’t give you a deadline or timeframe?

Look at your workload, identify a place where the task fits, add some buffer, and provide a delivery date to the client. If they accept your date, great! Now, you can focus on delivery. If they reject your suggestion, you’ve just uncovered the hidden time constraint. Now, you’ll be in a position to negotiate and agree upon an acceptable date.

Congratulations, you’ve just averted a crisis by successfully managing your client’s expectations! This is easily one of the most important factors for providing great customer service, keeping your client happy, and maintaining a positive relationship during your work together.

Side note: If there really is no due date, then, in my opinion, there shouldn’t be a task. If something is so unimportant that it doesn’t matter when it gets done, why on earth would you ever spend time doing it?

Why Gmail is Great – It’s Software Developed With the End-User in Mind

Technology in our daily lives is ever-expanding, so it should follow that software development companies are absolutely booming – in fact, MarketLine states that the global software market is expected to grow to a whopping $357 billion dollar industry by 2015, which is quite a boost from the $265 billion total from 2010. Companies already deep in this industry will certainly want an edge over their competition, and there’s no better way to gain the trust of their customers than building great software.

When you think examples of truly magnificent software, what springs to mind? For me, Gmail takes the cake – a simple yet intuitive piece of software that makes the mundane task of writing and organizing e-mail truly effortless. Every aspect of the software is designed to be as easy-to-use as possible, while providing the ability to use a wide array of features. Many times it’s difficult to strike a balance between simplistic design and power, but Gmail hits the nail on the head.

tabs

One thing separating Gmail from the other e-mail services out there is their recent implementation of category tabs. I have to admit, when this feature was released, I wasn’t thrilled – my knee-jerk reaction was something along the lines of “Why complicate things by dividing my inbox? Why fix what’s not broken?” Oh, how young and foolish I was – this feature has quickly become one of my favorite aspects of Gmail, allowing me to quickly jump to different categories. Do I want to check out all of my social media updates? One click of the “Social” tab will do that! How about any promotional e-mails outlining that day’s sales? You guessed it, just hit the “Promotions” tab. Additionally, you don’t even have to specify which e-mail is sorted under which tab – Gmail does it automatically. Brilliant!

If you’ve ever mentioned attaching something in Gmail, and then completely forgot to attach it, you’re greeted with the following message:

attachfiles

This likely didn’t take much time to develop at all, yet has likely saved many people from looking foolish (first-hand experience here). While it isn’t likely to make or break which e-mail service you choose, these details really impresses you when you need them.

It’s this kind of usability that gives me confidence in Google’s software – I’d be more willing to try software that they develop, since I’m comfortable with the kind of work they do from prior experience. On the flip-side, had my Gmail experiences been full of frustration or lacked the features that I’ve come to expect, maybe I’d check out alternatives – in fact, it was my frustration with Yahoo!’s services that led me to leaving it behind in the first place. The bottom line – usability matters, and if you aren’t able to put out simple software with powerful features, your customers will find someone else who can.

Project Management & Relationships

Very often our blog contributors post great articles about things like managing expectations, solving problems for our clients, and gathering requirements from a client. All of the articles touch on topics that are very relevant to the work we do as consultants every day and one of the key aspects of doing each of these things well and, in turn, being good consultants, is to develop strong relationships with our clients.

Learn About the Key Players

When setting out on a project, one of my goals is to gather the requirements of the software that we’re being engaged to build. Beyond that, we need to understand who the decision makers are. These are often the people that we’ll being dealing with regularly to get things accomplished and make sure the project doesn’t stall due to indecision or missed deliverables. From the smallest task that requires a simple yes/no answer to a very important meeting to discuss a pivotal system process, as Development Managers, we’ll regularly engage the key decision makers to get all the necessary tasks completed.

As part of building a relationship with the parties involved in a project, we’re always trying to understand how our software will help their business. Clear communication is important to any project and we’ll often need to go the extra step of learning the company or industry-specific terminology that our clients use on a day-to-day basis. This helps us understand requests and communicate with each client most effectively.

Another important thing to learn about key parties for a project: what forces are driving their requests, decisions, and actions? From the start, we need to try to find what will make the project run smoothly and what could potentially hold the project back. Key questions here will cover topics like target dates, project budgets, and critical processes. These questions and their answers will help us do exactly what many of our other blog posts talk about–gather requirements, manage expectations, solve problems–all of which are crucial to the success of a project.

Row With, Not Against, the Third-Party Stream

What if your project requires you to work with someone in addition to your client? As a software development team, we regularly find ourselves in situations where we’re required to work with other vendors on tasks like integrating with other systems, adding/modifying code that isn’t ours, or working in an environment that we don’t have control over. These things can present potential hurdles, but we strive to do the best we can to navigate these waters because that’s what will make for the best possible experience and solution for our clients.

Much like when you’re building a relationship with a client, you’ll want to find and engage the key players of any third-party vendor and learn how best to work with them. Some of the best ways to ensure a friendly and professional relationship that meets the needs of your client and their project include:

  1. Asking early and often – If our development team needs something from a third party, whether it be access to a system or knowledge of existing code, we’ll do our best to get ahead by asking questions again and again, as soon as we know we’ll need the assistance.
  2. Understanding that third party teams have schedules, too – People often overlook the fact that other teams are fighting to meet their own deadlines outside of the project you’re working on together. We find the best way to stay on top of external deadlines is to repeatedly ask for tentative completion dates or turn-around timeframes from our co-vendors, so we can align our own goals and expectations and help better manage the goals and expectations of everyone involved in the project.
  3. Smiling – It sounds cheesy, but it can help. If you’re getting resistance from an outside party, do your best to smile when pushing for the answers you need. The best case scenario is that you establish a genuinely friendly relationship with your co-vendor but even if you don’t, getting the answers and info you need in a pleasant manner is always going to make it easier for you to work together successfully. And always remember to keep your client in the loop if you’re waiting for answers or status updates from another vendor.

Does Your Client Look at Your Development Team as a Partner?

As a developer, I often find myself in conversations about how people use applications, even outside of business hours! I frequently get the same feedback from friends/family that I do from new clients–they feel like the people who work in development (or “IT”) abandon them as quickly as possible. In developing good relationships with your client, make an effort to communicate that you’re “with them” on their project. The difference in saying something as minor as “We’ve accomplished” vs “I’ve accomplished” can have a big impact on that feeling. At Algonquin Studios, we take pride in being with our clients and doing the kind of relationship-building work discussed above gives us an extra sense of pride in what we’re able to accomplish. And, we hope that shows in all of our interactions with our clients.

4 Questions a Software Developer Should Ask Each Day

This is my take on a lesson I was taught very early in my career.  It made sense to me right away, but after applying it for over a decade I’m convinced its one of the most important things I’ve ever learned.  I hope to do it justice in sharing it with all of you.  I’ve written this from my perspective as a custom software developer and consultant, but I believe it applies universally to software developers.  If you’re an in-house developer, just think of your clients as the folks you build software for (i.e. the users, your managers and the owners, etc).  Start by asking yourself:

Question #1: Is your client happy?

This should be the first thing on your mind at all times.  A happy client will come back for more. They’ll tell their friends about you.  They’ll promote your brand.  They’ll keep your pipeline full.  Clients are your lifeblood and keeping them happy is the only way to survive long-term.  I know… this is obvious, right?  Well, it’s not that easy to execute on all the time and a lot of developers don’t really understand what it means.  We’re not looking for short-term happiness brought on by just doing whatever they ask or by applying quick fixes in difficult situations. We’re after long-term, sustainable happiness.   How can we achieve that?

Manage Expectations:

This is huge.  You have to start managing your client’s expectations the moment you meet and continue doing so throughout the course of the relationship.  The moment you stop filling their heads with facts, they’ll start filling it with all types of other things.  Expected timelines will creep, visions of features will morph, old conversations will take on slightly skewed meaning in the light of new information that isn’t shared and wasn’t part of the original conversation. Expectation creep is not malicious… its human nature.  Small expectation gaps are like a crack in the foundation of your house.  With effort you can avoid them in the first place, but if allowed to form and grow they can be devastating to a relationship.  Communicate clearly, completely and often. And memorialize EVERYTHING in writing.

Honor your commitments:

Lots of promises are made at the beginning of the job.  Most of them will be recorded in a contract that commits you to honor them. However, not every intention, notion and promise will make it in there.  There will always be a new way to look at a deliverable later on and re-interpret its meaning. This tends to happen when the going gets rough. Maybe things are taking longer than anticipated. Maybe you’ve had staff or personal issues that distracted you from the project.  Stuff happens.  Renegotiate the terms if it’s reasonable to do so, but don’t, under any circumstances hide behind a nuance in the contract language or try to back away from the original spirit of the deal.  You know what you committed to. Honor it and get the job done. It will hurt at times, but your client’s happiness and your reputation depend on it.

Be a partner:

You’ve agreed to help your client solve a problem.  The best way to do that is to look at the issue as your own.  Do your best to see and feel the goals from your client’s perspective.  Own the problem.  Your client can tell the difference between this approach and that of the last firm who was just “doing their job”.

Be Available:

You should return calls/emails in a reasonable and consistent amount of time and you should answer the questions contained in them.  If you take long, random amounts of time to respond you’ll frustrate your clients. If your late response doesn’t answer the question, you’ll infuriate them.

Stick to your principles and do the right thing:

Your client hired you because they don’t have the time, or more likely the expertise to accomplish the task.  Even though you’ve been brought in as the expert, there will come a time where the client insists you to do something that you know will hurt them in the long-run.  It’s your duty to hold your ground in these situations. Take time to explain why this approach will be harmful. Give examples. Be steadfast. Ultimately it’s their decision, but you owe it to them to try and do the right thing.  I often liken this role to that of a personal trainer.  If your client came to the gym and told you they were tired and didn’t feel like working out, you could satisfy their short-term desires, buy them a muffin and a shake and plop them in front of the TV for a little Judge Judy, but that’s the easy way out and it won’t help them accomplish their long-term objectives. It’s your job to get them motivated and on the treadmill.  Don’t be a coward… do your job!

Be enjoyable to work with:

Make a connection with your clients on a personal level.  Ask them about their kids, their pets, their hobbies.  Be human and have a sense of humor.  Your client will like you if you help them solve their business problems.  They’ll love you if you help them have a good time doing it.

Be humble:

I’ve already stated that you’re here as an expert, but that’s probably only true for your specific role in the overall initiative.  Whether you’re building software or developing a social media strategy, you’re doing it for them.  Don’t come in acting like you’re the savior.  Do your part and do it well, but trust that they understand their business better than you do and they have the grand vision.  This is a learning opportunity for you and it’s probably the best part of being a consultant.  Listen intently, learn from them and make sure they know you’re doing it.

Question #2: Is your work correct?

If you’ve executed on the principals from #1, your client’s in a happy place.  Now it’s time to deliver and your solution better work.  It must accurately achieve the goals of the project in a meaningful and sustainable way.  It has to work today so that they can execute their business plans and begin to see some return on investment.  It has to be flexible enough that it can be modified as their business evolves.  It has to be scalable so that it will remain viable as their business grows.  Ultimately, this becomes an extension of #1.  Your product speaks for you when you aren’t around and it should continue the good work you did from the beginning.

Question #3: Is your work on time?

So you’ve got a happy client and a solution that works.  Next, you need to ensure that everything is delivered on-time.  Every project you take on becomes part of some larger business plan.  Once you commit to timelines, your client begins to plan their next steps.  Let’s say they’re planning a major product launch to coincide with the release of the new web site and online catalog you’re building for them.

They’ve got billboards going up, commercials ready to air and an army of trainees preparing to handle the expected influx of business…. and it all hinges on that end of year delivery your promised.  Now imagine its mid-December and you tell them you won’t be hitting your date.  It’s a client happiness catastrophe!  Months of planning is coming unraveled, your client cancels holiday bonuses for their staff because they need to conserve cash to pay the army of trainees with no corresponding revenue offset, they can’t cancel the billboards and commercials and they’re going to look like fools when they don’t deliver the product their hawking; oh… and your client is really starting to worry because they have a family vacation planned for the month after the project was set to be done and now that’s in jeopardy.  This may be an extreme example, but rest assured that your missed deadline will cause problems for you client that you may never even know about.  All you’ll know is that despite “everything you’ve done for them” your competitor wins the next job.

Question #4: Is your work on budget?

I bet you didn’t think it’d take this long to talk money.  Don’t get me wrong… budgets are important, but less so than client happiness, quality and timelines when it comes to your long-term success.  Simply put, you must never sacrifice #’s 1-3 to keep your budget in line.  That’s short-term thinking and it’ll eventually lead to a crippling pile of problems that will crush your business and reputation.  In a recent post titled Keeping Projects on Budget, I explained how an end-to-end project management effort is required to walk this line.  You’ll need to develop a process that works for you and execute it flawlessly.

One key topic to keep in mind along the way: Don’t do Out of Scope work for free!  I mean it… never ever ever ever. Not even small stuff.  Given the flexible nature of software, it’s easy to throw in this tweak or that additional feature.  It seems harmless at the time, but it always leads to problems.  First off, you’re mismanaging expectations.  You’ll be more likely to agree to something extra at the beginning of the project when you have lots of budget then you’ll be at the end when the budget’s winding down.  When you say yes, yes, yes then no, your client starts to feel cheated.  Why are you tightening the reigns now?  This leads to unspoken animosity where the developers think their earlier “generosity” is not appreciated and the client thinks this new strictness means the development team isn’t willing to see their “promises” through to the end. Everyone’s right and everyone’s wrong. It’s a bad situation and it damages relationships.  Secondly, now you’ll have to finish the scoped items with less than the necessary budget. You’re faced with sacrificing quality or sacrificing your profits.  That sucks.  See #2 for advice on what to do.

Summary

Software development can be a tricky business.  Most developers can handle the technology, but many struggle with managing the overall process.  Ask yourself these questions daily and align your efforts with satisfying them in priority order.   It takes time and effort, but if you persistently follow this list you’ll build great relationships, feel good about the work you do and eventually… you’ll make some money too.

I’m always looking for new tips and techniques for keeping my clients happy.  What’s worked for you?

Recommended read: While researching for this post I came across an article I liked so much I had to share.  A short, but important read: Mastering Account Management: 5 Tips for Keeping Clients Happy

Self-Help and What It Means to the Future of Customer Service

Self-help–it’s the sort of thing that everyone wants to be able to do in order to be the most efficient they can be without having to bug someone else or take more time out of their already busy day to track down assistance.  Self-help is becoming the norm in everyday customer service, across many different technology platforms.  But, the question that has yet to be answered is, will the general public accept the self help model of service?  The answer is, if implemented correctly, yes, because it will increase productivity and make customers feel empowered–able to assist themselves without having to ask anyone else for guidance and without having to wait around for answers or instructions.

I can’t tell you how many times I have heard people complain about having to speak to a Help Desk representative because they often sound like they’re just reading from a script, giving no real advice and providing no real insight. Experiences like these offer very little to instill confidence in a customer about the level of service they’re receive.  By giving customers the option of self-help, we’re putting them in the driver’s seat. They can resolve issues for themselves and feel the pride that’s inherent in fixing something on their own.

Support professionals need to be creative in identifying and creating opportunities for customers to embrace the self-help style of customer service, though, in order to encourage the mainstream adoption of the model. Successful self-help relies on detailed and well-informed knowledge base articles, how-to videos, and tutorials. Compiling lists of frequently asked questions is a great place to start–

If we approach development projects with consideration for where we can build self-help options into the software we’re building, we can make it easier for our customers to use and experience the benefits of our solutions. Finding opportunities to place a link or a button that provides immediate access to knowledge base articles that offer step-by-step procedures on how to fix issues are a great example: tutorials and how-to videos make it much easier for users to “see” the application in use, instead of having to read through steps which might be confusing to some. Identifying ways to incorporate both options, like the use of new “multiscreen” software built into many new Samsung phones and tablets, is fantastic because it gives the user the ability to view the help documentation while walking through the necessary steps in the app at the same time.

As developers and support representatives, we need to keep in mind that, the more we can successfully integrate self-help features into the software we build, the more value we’ll provide to the customers using our solutions and the easier it will be for our customers to stay on task without getting waylaid or frustrated. In a society where time is money and instant gratification is expected, this value can’t be overlooked.

Keeping Projects on Budget

BudgetYou know the drill.  Some ridiculously high percentage of software projects go over budget… And you’ve heard stories to back it up. Or worse, you have your own tales of being hung upside down by your ankles while the developers shake you down for every last cent.  Yet, here you are.  You’ve got a problem and it seems the only solution is custom software.  You’re doomed, right?  You might as well get ready to grin and bear it as you’re no doubt about to head down a path of endless pain and misery.  How did it ever come to this?

It doesn’t have to be this way!
I know… suspend disbelief for just a minute.  It’s going to take a lot of planning, coordination and hard work, but a well-executed software project can stay on budget AND deliver you a solution that satisfies your objectives in an effective and lasting way.  Here’s how we’ll help you do it:

Initial Sales Meetings and Preliminary Requirements Gathering
We start every engagement with an open mind. It’s important to fully understand all of the issues and goals before committing to any particular solution or technology.  Our initial meetings are designed to learn about your business and the issues you face.  What are the specific problems you are trying to solve and what are your goals?  Essentially, we start by helping you to define what success looks like for your project.  With that understanding our team will draft preliminary recommendations and deliver those with ballpark estimates.  At this point, we still won’t have all of the knowledge required to solve your problems, but we definitely have enough to determine if we are in the same ballpark… that is, determine whether or not we should continue before you spend any money.  If we are, the next steps will be to propose a formal Requirements Analysis process.

Requirements Analysis (RA) Phase
In this phase you’ll formally define what we are going to build.  We’ll schedule a number of meetings (preferably face-to-face) where our staff will spend time with your team to define the nitty-gritty details of the project. We’ll ask questions… I mean A LOT of questions.  We‘ll gain an understanding of your workflows, your staff, your business cycles, etc. so that we can clearly identify all of your needs.  With this deep understanding, we’ll produce several outputs that will help you effectively solve your issues within a predictable budget:

  • Business Requirements Document (BRD) – This is a comprehensive, plain-English, easy to understand definition of what you’re asking us to build. It can be read and understood by anyone on the project team, regardless of technical ability. The BRD is the cornerstone of the project and plays a fundamental role in sending you down a path where a predictable outcome and budget is possible.
  • Screen Mockups/Wireframes – These will provide a roughed-out visual representation of the system. They will help you to gain a better understanding of how the system will look, flow and feel.
  • Flowcharts – These are a visual representation of the workflow and business rules for the more complicated sections of the system.  They will help to further iron out the finer details of the project and identify “holes” early on.
  • Fixed fee for implementation – Once we know exactly “what” we’re building, we can very accurately predict how long it will take and how much it will cost.  That allows us to provide you with a fixed fee proposal for implementation.

In addition to these outputs, we will provide you with guidance on infrastructure needs, licensing for 3rd party components, and requirements for any 3rd party vendors, plus details on what your team will need to do to keep everything on track and make the project a success. Getting all of these issues on the table early and working together on a plan for dealing with them is the most important step towards a path that allows for a predictable budget.

The outputs from RA are yours to keep and are designed in such a way that any development shop with the appropriate technical abilities could implement them for you.  We certainly hope that you’ll choose to continue working with us, but at this point you are free and clear to move on if that’s what ‘s best for your organization.  And the best part… you’ve likely gotten here in less than 20% of your overall project budget.

Implementation
Once you agree to our fixed-fee proposal we’ll begin to implement your solution.  As far as the agreed upon scope is concerned, you won’t have anything to worry about in terms of budget.  We’ll produce the agreed upon output for thee agreed upon fee.  However, there may still be other costs that need to be managed.

Out of Scope (OOS)
We’ll continue to spend a lot of time with you during the implementation phase.  In particular, we’ll have regularly scheduled demos and walkthroughs that will allow you to see, feel and tweak the system throughout the process.  Minor adjustments to layout, appearance, terminology, etc. are expected and this is taken into account within your fixed fee.  However, you will inevitably identify additional opportunities for enhancements/changes that were not thought of during the RA phase.  Many of these items will be relegated to a future phase, but some may represent such a benefit to your solution that you choose to implement them now.  We’ll tap our vast project experience to help you classify the items and advise on how to best fit in those “must haves” with minimal impact to your timeline and budget.

Third Party Vendors
Very often you’ll have additional vendors that play roles in your solutions (i.e. your IT staff, your hosting company, the firm that supports the application you have asked us to integrate with, etc.).  This can create pressure on timelines and that can have an impact on your true costs (even if just by requiring additional time investment by your staff).  We’re very experienced in dealing with these situations and will advise you on how to get commitments from these parties and hold them accountable to meeting them.

Adoption
Once your software is complete, you need to get your users to use it.  This involves training, planning cut-overs, etc. and these things can definitely impact your true costs for the project. Having deployed hundreds of systems into organizations of all sizes under a wide array of circumstances, we’re able to advise you on a roll-out strategy that will help this all happen predictably (and on budget).

Quality Assurance (QA)
Your project has been in QA since the RA phase. Our QA team is tasked with reviewing and approving your Business Requirements before implementation can begin.  Then, the QA process continues through implementation with Code Reviews and internal screen reviews. Finally, the resulting software is put through a rigorous final QA pass that verifies all of your business rules and may include load tests, security scans, etc.  How does this impact the budget?  It’s all included in the fixed fee, but the value goes beyond that.  By ensuring a quality product goes out the door, we’re really enabling you to predict the long-term operating costs of the solution.  That will keep you “on-budget” for the long haul.

Ongoing Support
Depending on your specific situation, there’s a very good chance you’ll need or desire some level of support from our staff post-go-live.  With a full-time help desk and available 24x7x365 support solutions, we are equipped to provide you with a long-term support arrangement that meets your budget and business needs.

Deployment
Once everything is done, we still need to launch your software before you can start using it.  Delays of any kind will likely impact your total costs (i.e. think costs associated with preparing your staff for a launch that doesn’t happen, then doing it all over again a week later). Our development process takes a structured approach to this as well.  With thorough checklists in hand, our staff will be able to launch your software on schedule and will be less likely to run into last second “surprises”.

Summary
Our development process has been defined and tuned over the past 15 years through the experiences gained in thousands of engagements.  Our comprehensive approach, combined with the vast experience of our staff, allows us to identify and address hurdles early on and helps to eliminate the big “surprises” that plague so many software projects.  This allows predictability… And predictability saves budgets.

Supporting New Software? No Problem.

One of the first stages of the software development life cycle is the roll-out of brand new software and with it comes that awkward honeymoon phase – it’s anyone’s guess as to what problems might arise during the first few weeks of use. With this comes a sense of uncertainty, but it doesn’t have to be all that scary! Since I’ve started working at Algonquin Studios, I’ve seen many old and grizzled systems scrapped in favor of bright and shiny new ones and I’ve learned a lot about piecing together a support process for when you aren’t totally familiar with the new software. Here are a few important things to keep in mind when venturing into uncharted territory:

There will be bugs. Probably more of them than you expected.

Even if you have the most fantastic software developers imaginable (like we do here at Algonquin), there are going to be unforeseen issues that pop up, so expect a sizable workload increase in the first couple months after releasing a brand new system. This leads to my next point…

Stay organized and consistent with bug tracking.

With an increase in bug reporting, it’s vital that the support team is clearly documenting all bugs reported and all team members tasked speaking with end users are kept up-to date on issues as they develop. Being diligent about your tracking will ensure that when it comes time to fixing those nasty bugs, everyone has as smooth a ride as possible.

Make sure you manage customer expectations.

As with all customer support issues, it’s important to manage expectations about bug fixes and requests for new features (Hey, I actually wrote a whole post about that here!). If there’s an issue or request that a user is anxious about seeing to resolution, let them know that you’ll be documenting the issue to be reviewed, but make no promise of when it will be completed. Not everything can be fixed or added at the same time and it’s best not to give false expectations.

Create and update a Knowledge Base from the get-go.

If you’re not keeping an updated Knowledge Base for your support team, you need to start… And you need to start yesterday. A centralized location for in-house use is crucial to being able to provide consistent answers on issues as they arise. Are you receiving the same questions on how to do a specific task in your software? Create a step-by-step “how-to” that you can send to customers quickly and easily, saving everyone a whole lot of time and confusion.

Have a simple way to escalate issues on a regular basis.

Whether it’s a weekly meeting or a regularly-sent report, there needs to be a way to let upper-level management know what’s going on. It’s ultimately not up to the front-line team to decide what gets fixed and when, but it is their responsibility to make sure the higher-ups are able to hear about the most dire issues. If there’s no process in place to communicate this, make sure you create one so the development life cycle can progress naturally.

Remember, as bleak as handling support may seem at the launch of new software, it will always get easier as time goes on. Implementing a brand new system is a learning process for both end users and support teams, so treat it as such! Look at it as an opportunity to grow your own skills and knowledge and reassure everyone involved that the process will all be worth it in the end. Every company will handle the launch of new software differently; what are some examples of procedures that your team utilizes when implementing a new system? Leave a comment and let us know!

Know Your Requirements!

Often times at Algonquin Studios, clients ask us to improve on their current software solution. The existing solution is either out of date or it simply isn’t giving the client what they need. For the user, changing systems can be a scary proposition. People grow comfortable with what they are accustomed to however, following a routine that you’ve done for years is the safe route. For this reason, it’s very important to sit back and think about what the system needs to accomplish. We want to make sure we maintain the output they are expecting from the software they use on a day to day basis, but keep an open mind on how to get there. In order to ensure this outcome, we spend a considerable amount of time conducting requirements analysis.

During the requirements analysis phase, one of the most important parts of a project, we determine what exactly the client needs are and how we will provide that solution. Time and again we run into the same obstacle of getting the client to see the difference between “what your users have today” and “what do you need the software to accomplish.” Clients often want everything they have today, in addition to the improvements we will provide with our software. Unfortunately, this could cause unnecessary features to be included in the software and add additional costs into the project going forward (training, support, system complexity … etc.). Costs that could be used elsewhere, either for the company or to build out additional features that are needed in the new system.

So, when coming into these requirements meetings it’s best to come prepared. To be better prepared it’s most important to know what is needed, as opposed to going screen by screen showing us everything they have today. There are many other ways to be prepared for these meetings, here are a couple:

Question your users

As a client, when was the last time you asked your user base about the program they use on a day to day basis? Requirements and business needs are always changing over time. Depending on the size of the user base, and the software being used, these questions could vary (and there are many). In the end, the client should find a way to determine:

  1. Which features are being used the most?
  2. Which features are rarely (if at all) used and aren’t needed?
  3. Is there anything you need the system to do that it doesn’t do today?
  4. Does the system provide repeatable work that the software doesn’t handle, costing people time every day?
  5. Are there current features that need to be revised to accommodate current needs?

There are many ways to gather this data.

Is this software internal, used by only a handful of people in your office? Have a meeting to review the software and gather the information firsthand from the users. Come prepared to ask about features that work and those that don’t. Are there any that have lost value over the years?

Do you have thousands of users using the software across the United States? Setup online user groups and invite people to provide valuable feedback on the software. Depending on the capabilities of your software, you can limit the groups to certain sections of the software and provide questionnaires about those sections. This should help you gather all the necessary information to bring to your developers, so we can make sure we build you an efficient, quality application that suits all your needs.

Clearly Define the Inputs/Outputs

Frequently, a screen can be so overloaded that one loses focus on what exactly is needed. Determine all the inputs of the screen and make sure they are all required and are what you need. Next, identify inputs that are unnecessary or misused. Keep in mind that just because they exist today doesn’t mean they’re needed going forward. Additional inputs only cause more complexity.

As important as it is to define the inputs, it’s equally important to define the outputs. Outputs that are currently delivered may no longer be needed or efficient or may simply be delivered differently in the new software; Once again, this is often difficult for a client to understand. Asking a lot of questions in the requirements meetings about those features can help ease the process because in the end, the more inputs/outputs you have the more complex your system will be. Our team of consultants are really good at letting clients know if the value they’ll receive from a feature is worth the effort and, generally, we can determine this during the requirements meeting.

In the end, if the client does their part in determining what’s exactly needed out of a system in order to eliminate all the old, antiquated screens and logic, the better the software will be. This will ultimately save the client in the long run.

Turning Around Tough Problems for Your Customers – Part 5

OK! We’re in the home stretch of my customer service series.

We’ve followed LEAP; we’ve kept our customer informed and earned their approval for paths forward; and we’ve talked about times when “the customer is always right” benefits everyone and when “proposing a better solution” is worth the extra effort.

So, what else have I learned along the way that might help you?

Well, I’ve found that some customers will behave differently, depending on who they talk to, as they work themselves up the “authority chain.” For example, in the heat of the moment, a customer may yell at your customer service representative even though they work well together daily. But, when you call that same customer to follow up, they act as sweet as pie. What’s really behind this?

The customer may have been under pressure and, in the moment, let loose on your staff member. If so, they’ll probably apologize quickly. But there’s the chance you’re dealing with someone who’s trying to manipulate you and your team. While you’ll never be able to change your customer’s personality, you can coach your customer service team not to give historically difficult customers the privilege of spoiling their day by helping them remember to remain polite, spell out possible solutions, and escalate where necessary. If a customer personally insults a staff member or will not stop yelling, I ask my team to politely state that the conversation will continue at another time and then to hang up the phone. This trains customers that difficult behavior just slows them down.  You may want to consider teaming several people together to play different roles (e.g. good cop, bad cop; sales vs. production). I’ve found approach very effective when dealing with customers who express difficult attitudes. You may also need to offer regularly scheduled meetings for your customer service staff to vent in-house, up stream, in a safe environment.

Sometimes things get really tough and you find yourself continuously dealing with a difficult or manipulative customer. Do a little research here… Does this customer cost you too much to serve them well? While my customer service team doesn’t have the authority to fire a customer, they are empowered to make such a recommendation to the executive management team. If your company continues to work with someone who repeatedly hurls personal insults at your team, and you permit the behavior, you may lose your team’s commitment. Only you can weigh the outcomes, but you owe your employees the humility of listening to them.

Finally, rely on your Terms and Conditions as a guidepost for everyone involved. Your firm’s Terms and Conditions (T&C) are your collected wisdom that protects you and your customer. If a customer can’t see the value in both sides abiding by your T&C, they’re probably not a good fit for your company. But remember, your T&C are a living document; don’t be afraid to change them when appropriate.

What are your war stories from the trenches? It would have taken me a much longer time to develop much of this insight without the help of my two mentors; feel free to share your ideas with us to help continue to conversation!

Turning Around Tough Problems for Your Customers – Part 4

So, we’ve followed LEAP – listening without interrupting, empathizing with the customer given the facts he or she expressed, asking clarifying questions and check-downs, and  producing an immediate remedy and long-term process changes to prevent the problem moving forward. Along the way, we’ve kept our customer informed and earned their approval for paths forward. But why go to all this effort when we could just follow the wisdom of “The customer is always right?”

Let’s say that’s true – your customer knows what’s best for them, not you. Your customer has already been inconvenienced with the problem at hand. Why waste their time when you could do what they ask? They’ll come back to you in the future, confident that if things don’t go well then you’ll take care of them. Also, you’ll quickly move on to serving more customers. And, the customer will spread the word about how you took care of them.

In Buffalo, we have a fine grocery store chain that appears to follow this axiom. In practice almost everyone I know who shops there has a story about someone who brought an unsatisfactory item to the store’s customer service desk. Regardless of the problem, even if it was simply that you didn’t like the product, they’d replace the item with something you liked on the spot.

But not every problem is that simple. Does the customer really know the best way to solve the problem? You’re the expert, solving similar problems more often and in greater variety. What if the customer is missing some of the facts? What if you’ve seen their suggested remedy fail for other customers before? What if they’re asking for something that violates your Terms and Conditions? What if it’s not fair as you see it?

It’s hard to frame this in a grocery store scenario–not every business is a grocery store. What if you’re an auto mechanic and your customer suggests a solution that you know would endanger them later? You wouldn’t do it. You honor your customer when you propose a better solution and humbly make the final decision theirs. If they’re not willing to go along, honestly spell out the limits of what you can do. In grey areas, I often find myself negotiating, based on quickly grasping the principles that each side values. Humor goes a long way deflating the stress in the situation.

I think that “the customer is always right” seems to work in simple situations, where facts can quickly be assessed, the cost to get the facts is much higher than the remedy, or the customer isn’t going to hurt themselves. I believe that “propose a better idea” seems to work best when facts are hard to assess well, the cost of fact finding is much lower than the remedy, or the customer could hurt themselves unintentionally. The long term relationship is almost always worth more than the immediate issue, so choose the method that favors your relationship. And remember to go back and improve your process after.

Is there anything I’ve learned from growing my “tough conversations” method over the years? Of course! We’ll talk about that in the next post.