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Tuesday, 16 June 2009 at

Six Things you Really Need to Know about Your Customers

I'm running Introduction to Agile Courses in London on 9th July and in Bristol on 5th August.

This post is mainly aimed at people who are trying to write software for their customers, but it probably applies a lot wider than that. When I run training courses on how to handle difficult conversations, I try to get across the idea that you should try to move a conversation away from message delivery, to information discovery. But when you do that, what information are you trying to discover? Well, these six areas aren't a bad place to start.


Following on from yesterday's post, it's a good idea to understand as much as you can about your customer's timing issues and expectations. This doesn't just mean time-scales and deadlines for the projects you're working on, but also the kinds of timings that are important in their business. It means anything else that you can possibly think of related to time. When do they get in the office? How late do they stay? In their business what is regarded as a reasonable response time for a query? 2 days? 20 seconds? What's the planning horizon for their business? There might be lots of different answers. For example, in advertising, pitches might need to be knocked up over night, but billboard space needs to be booked three to six months in advance for a campaign.

Dali melted timepiece

What are the timing issues?


For want of a better clumsy term or two, what I mean is, is the business that your client is in a new, pioneering innovative business, or is it completely understood, a commodity, where competition has to be on price and efficiency and organisation has be to perfect. People who work in industries that are comprehended and comodified can find web and software development utterly bewildering. A common recent example is the experience of producers from television moving over to "produce" (i.e. project manage) web development projects. The costs of producing a 1 hour documentary or a 30 minute studio-based sitcom are well understood. The costs of producing a successful social media website aren't.

Campbells soup

Is your customer's business a commodity business?


How do your customers make it? Which of their activities makes loads of cash? Which of their activities make hardly any cash? What is expected of your software in relation to making money? What are their margins? They may not know some of the answers to these questions. Even if they do, they may not want to tell you. But the more you know about this, the better placed you are to deliver them the software they need, within a suitable charge structure. For example, if they plan to do the bulk of their business using your software over long period of time, maybe a maintenance and licensing deal makes more sense than an upfront fee. If they intend the website to be more profitable than any other business that they've ever run, they might have a problem.


What kind of relationship does your customer normally have with suppliers? Are these relationships based on good personal contact or on contracts? Does your customer make money by playing one supplier off against another to get the lowest price (as do, for example supermarkets?). What sort of response do they expect from their suppliers in terms of responsiveness, exclusivity, even level of formality?


Who are these people? How do they see themselves? Are they ruthless business people? Intellectuals? Great craftsmen and women? Artists? Teachers? Curators? Healers? COmmunicators? A large number of people that you meet in business never wanted to be in business and aren't in their post entirely for the money (or at least that's what they're telling themselves). You need to know why they're there, otherwise you're conversations with them will make very little sense.

Maria Callas

How do you customers see themselves?

Software Knowledge and Experience

What knowledge of the internet, the world wide web or of software is there in the business? What knowledge is there of what the internet/web/software can and cannot do? Does anyone in the business understand what bespoke software is? Does the business have any experience of commissioning bespoke web, or any other kind of software in the past? Was commissioning software a good or a bad experience? What was good about it? What was bad about it?

What kind of technology do your customers consider to be "state of the art?"

This is a far from exhaustive list, but the better the answers you have to these questions, the better the chances for the project as it progresses. I also hope it's clear how important it is to know how your own organisation would answer these questions. What are your timing issues? How you do you see yourselves? What is your identity? How do you make money? How do you want or expect to be treated as a supplier? More to the point perhaps, what's your experience of software and the internet?

For further information, contact (07736 807 604)

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