lean-customer-developmentI love Cindy Alvarez‘s book, Lean Customer Development (full disclosure: I edited that book). Cindy takes Steve Blank’s customer development work and brings it right down to earth, offering strategies for making sure you’ve got customers before you spend “months and millions” developing your product. It’s a very practical book aimed at helping both lean startups and established companies.

In Chapter 9, Cindy discusses ongoing customer development: how you can keep talking to your customers and learning from them.

So often, organizations are focused on selling the product. It works in a straight line: marketing reaches the customers, sales sells to them, and later, customer service hears from them.

It’s a straight line—but it should be a feedback loop.

In fact, it should be multiple feedback loops. Customer service should loop back to management, to product development, to sales, and closer to home for a technology writer like me, to technical documentation.

Once at a small hardware company, I was the head of tech documentation and, when someone left, I also headed up customer service. But even before that, I had realized that the customer service reps had gold for me. What questions did they get? What problems were they seeing? The more I could answer up front clearly in the doc and product packaging, the fewer calls the call center would get.

Today of course customers have many channels to communicate with us: chat, email, and phone (not to mention social media to communicate about us). But how much time do we spend listening to the people who are talking to customers?

In Chapter 9 of Lean Customer Development, Alvarez tells a great story about Vanessa Pfafflin’s experience in customer support at MindBody, a company that builds software for fitness and wellness professionals. Pfafflin kept hearing the same questions from customers. She found herself annotating screenshots with suggestions for how the product design could be more intuitive and lead users to common functions. At the time there was a complete disconnect: support folks were the only ones talking to customers and support didn’t talk to product design. Pfafflin’s suggestions were the beginnings of a sea change at MindBody, which now requires everyone who works on the product to spend two hours observing customers using the product every 6 weeks.

At Evolved Media, we think talking to customers is one of the best ways to find out whether you’re really meeting their needs. The projects I’ve been involved with where we’ve spoken to customers and heard their stories are powerful, and for B2B technology companies, the transcripts of those conversations are as valuable as the writing based on them, whether blogs, case studies, or, in one case, research that informed the design of a developer portal. If you listen to customers, they may guide you to new products and business models you haven’t even considered yet.

Find out how Intel tapped into the power of their customers’ stories.