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Team Management
January 1, 2014

Building a Customer-centric Team

JC Grubbs Founder & Chief Executive Officer

If your organization has customers you must have a customer-centric team in order to succeed. Customer-centricity should permeate every level of the organization, and all the processes that help your teams be productive. At Tandem we spend most of our time working with customers and over the years have learned how to build a team that’s fixated on customer satisfaction and success. Whether building a Ruby-on-Rails web application, a mobile iOS app, or a highly scalable back-end system in Clojure, customers are the constant.

Hire Well

It may seem obvious, but if you hire folks that are customer focused then your team will be customer focused. Evaluating whether a candidate has this instinct or not is difficult but possible. Our hiring process involves two full days of candidates working alongside team members on actual client work. This gives us the opportunity to listen to the types of questions that indicate client focus:

  • “So, what’s the business value they’re getting from this feature?”
  • “Is there a less expensive way we can accomplish this?”
  • “How are we measuring the success of this functionality?”

When candidates ask these kinds of questions it tells us that they are more interested in the client’s success than impressing us and that’s a good thing.

Advice:

Ask questions that give a candidate the opportunity to show where they believe the value of your organization comes from. Given the opportunity, do they focus on you or your customers?

Direct Customer Engagement

There’s nothing more effective at building a customer-centric team than letting the team interact directly with the customers. I’ve been through many organizations in my career that placed artificial barriers between customers and the workers, like a giant game of telephone with real money in play. This never works well. Yes, things will get documented, but communication suffers.

More than just laggy communication, when an engineer or designer is cut off from the beneficiary of their work two things happen:

1) The designer or developer can no longer see and feel the value that they’re adding and therefore aren’t motivated to create more.

2) The feedback from a customer is diluted by the time it arrives at the person doing the actual work.

Advice:

Let your team interface directly with customers, the whole team, not just analysts or managers. If there is a fear of junior members of the team working directly with clients then fix it, use it as a teaching point, everyone needs to learn to work with customers.

Avoid Disinterest and Dissent

Ideally, you get to select or target customers that are perfect for your company. But, not every project is sexy, and not every customer is interesting and easy to work with. When these kinds of projects come along it’s critical to never allow the team to fall into apathy or dissent.

Technical and design teams crave challenging problems and smart collaborators. When these aren’t there you have to find ways to keep the momentum and quality high. The alternative is a vicious cycle that is nearly impossible to recover from, in tech we call it the Death March.

Advice:

All teams need a pressure valve, and especially when there’s a tough customer or project involved. Make sure teams in this situation are maintaining a healthy work-life balance, keep to strict 40 hour weeks, team lunches, etc.

Keep a close eye on each team member and watch for signs of burn-out. Folks that are exceedingly frustrated should probably be rotated off the team, one loud complainer can spoil the bunch.

Measuring Delivered Value

Our teams love building things AND seeing the value of what we’ve built, it’s a huge motivator. Much like the business needs to see the value of it’s ideas to continue investing in them, the delivery team needs to see the value to keep building them. Frequent feedback on the performance of features and applications from a business-perspective is critical.

Advice:

Share markers of added value directly with the team.

  • Frequent demos with business stakeholders in which they can share directly with the delivery team about the value being added to the business.
  • Sharing information about conversion rates, profit margins, cost of ownership, etc. are also important as these are concrete indicators of value.
  • Sharing end-user satisfaction ratings and comments can also be helpful.
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