Zingerman’s Deli was a hole-in-the-wall delicatessen in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Today it’s a $25 million company. How did they get there? By providing great service and then continually going one step further. In doing so, the company has grown from a small deli into an enterprise consisting of a “restaurant, catering service, bakery, mail-order operation, creamery, and training business”. Its secret to success is laid out in Zingerman’s Guide to Giving Great Service.
When you’re building a product, there’s a long-held belief that you’re working toward the happiness of the customer. But the fact is that happiness is the point at which all bets are off and the real work begins. It’s a given that customers will have changing and growing expectations of a product or company. Your job as a product owner is to challenge and push those expectations even further, while still adding positive surprise to the experience.
The question is how you go about doing that.
Starting With Why
Starting by asking why is an interesting challenge, because it’s something that should happen at every stage of creation and growth.
At this year’s MozCon, Wil Reynolds gave a presentation on Search User Experience. One of his key insights was that businesses should be focusing on the outcomes, not the output. The idea is that we get wrapped up in metrics that don’t really matter because we ignore the outcome that the metric provides.
Instead of focusing on the output, ask yourself why you care about it. Each time you answer the question of why, ask it again until you’ve done so five times. This is usually the point when you’ll get to the root of why a metric matters.
For example, a metric like “number of bugs addressed in the previous month” is a measure of output. That’s great, but what does it really mean? Why is that number important? The problem with measuring tasks is that they only tell a single portion of a larger story. In this case, the bigger task at hand is making the customer happy.
And customer happiness? Why is that important? Without it, you can never grow your business. You never get the chance to go one step further.
Show, Don’t Ask
There’s a rather famous quote from Henry Ford that perfectly addresses what product owners face:
If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.
How many times have you fallen down the rabbit hole of listening to customers? “I’d buy your product if only it did _____”. So you spend time making sure that it fills that need, only to find that the customer didn’t buy anyway. This is the trap of asking what to build rather than informing the customer of what they want but didn’t know about.
Going back to the example of Zingerman’s, this is where the +1 falls into place. Building the feature that you know needs to be included will bring happiness. But going one step further is what will drive the business to continued success rather than stagnation. Maybe it’s adding another integration, or quietly simplifying your signup process. Whatever you choose, choose to give something.
To really understand the importance of this, we have to re-examine one of the most widely-held beliefs about customer service.
The Customer Is Usually Wrong
You’ve likely heard the phrase “surprise and delight” through your entire professional career. It seems to be in every onboarding slide deck, regardless of industry, immediately followed by “the customer is always right”. Businesses say that they want to surprise and delight their customers, but they can rarely ever carry through with that promise.
The reasoning behind this failure is less surprising than you might think. It starts with the belief that the customer is indeed always right. In fact, the customer is wrong more often than not. But if you’re simply tracking output instead of outcome you may never know. All of those metrics will tell you that you’re on the road to success, but you have to bear in mind that they’re meaningless unless you know why you should care about them.
If the customer is always right, then you’ll never have the opportunity to surprise and delight them. You won’t push your boundaries or build features that you’re certain that they’ll want. Why not? Because you’re letting the customer run your business and they’re never going to ask for what they don’t know.
The challenge to product owners is to go from “the customer is always right” to “the customer is always respected“.
Even the most left-field of ideas and opinions will have some validity. Your choice is to either listen to them and act on them, or to understand that they are a starting point for something bigger. Look to these unexpected suggestions as ammunition for your next +1. What might seem crazy today could very well be an over-the-top moment in six months.
Happiness Is Not The Outcome
Ask why, show don’t tell, start with respect. These simple steps can save a lot of heartache as your business grows and matures. Rather than focusing on reaching happiness, put your effort toward exceeding expectations. Customer happiness is the natural byproduct of a team that pays attention, pushes their own limits and focuses on creative solutions. A lifelong commitment from a customer? That’s the byproduct of going beyond happiness.