Doug Meyer Featured

8:00pm EDT October 26, 2007

One of Doug Meyer’s cognitive learning teams is watching from behind two-way mirrors as customers attempt to complete the tasks they’re presented. But the crinkled noses, sighs and rolling of the eyes tell them there are problems in the software created by Sage Software. As president of the Industry and Specialized Solutions Division of Sage Software, Meyer and his 750 employees use their observations to make changes to their products to meet customers’ needs. Smart Business spoke with Meyer about how thinking about your product from the customer’s viewpoint instead of your own can be a humbling experience.

Listen sincerely. It frankly takes time, and sometimes experience can be your worst enemy there. ‘We know this industry; we know this problem. No, you don’t have it right.’

You have to be willing to put your preconceived notions down. We hire people who are specialists at doing that and people who can, in fact, listen and check their ego at the door. Often, a customer is going to give us an idea on how to solve the problem that is different than what we thought was the right way.

It can be humbling because the best and brightest minds came up with a particular way to solve something, and then you put customers in front of it, and they can’t do it. What percentage of Americans, before TiVo came along, could actually program a VCR? That’s a tiny percentage and yet, it was amazing with how long VCRs were around that nobody took the time to solve that problem.

Bring customers in. Put them in the environment in which they use the solution, and make sure they can successfully complete the task that it was designed to accomplish.

Get deeper answers. What was historically done, if a company went out and talked to customers, they might say, ‘I have this payroll application. What features does it need that it doesn’t have that will meet your needs?’ That’s going to focus the customer on a very specific and tactical problem and solution.

Take a different approach — ‘What problems do you have in your work force? ... What are the problems you have in managing and paying your work force?’

We’re not talking about software. ‘Take me through everything from on-boarding employees and getting them signed up on payroll and ensuring you have all the forms filled out and you’re going to collect taxes properly, to tracking their hours and getting them paid. Let’s watch you do all that.’

You can uncover solutions and ideas that you wouldn’t if you had just said, ‘Well, how can we make this hourly feature in payroll work better for you?’ It’s really just imbed-ding yourself into the customer’s business and focusing on the job they have to do and how they might run their business.

Find customers’ needs. The deeper you go into that industry, you’re going to find more specialized unique needs to that particular business segment. Understand a business’s workflow, processes, how they get work done, how they’re successful and the obstacles they run into. The only way you can do that is having folks that have a deep understanding of that business and of that industry and are willing to get out there and put themselves in the place of the customer.

We have a health care business. We sell solutions to doctor’s offices, but we actually have doctors on staff who help us build solutions for those doctor’s offices versus just assuming that we have that knowledge ourselves.

Hire customer-centric people. Not everybody really believes in the philosophy that we bring in going to the market being customer connected. It’s more than words.

It’s truly putting customer needs, customer problems, and thinking about identifying and solving those problems differently than any and most technology companies have historically. We want to probe and find that a person is committed to that concept versus just saying the right words.

The language is very different. Take for a minute the construction marketplace. We want to discuss what problems we might solve for a residential homebuilder. If that person is going to think about features we can add to products, they’re not thinking about the customer’s point of view. If they say, ‘First, we have to understand what are the problems that this person is going to have in building a house, permitting, land acquisition, estimating, etc. — it’s a different way of thinking about how you solve problems and your approach to solving problems, and we want to see people oriented to them.

Share the vision. You have to touch people. I don’t want to imply that it’s creating a personal relationship with each one. That’s not really practical.

It’s easy in large companies for employees not to have any real relationship with management, and by creating a personal view of who you are as a human being, it helps employees become more engaged and committed and even emotional about wanting to help the company succeed — being a human is not a bad thing.

Management can get sometimes get caught in, ‘This is our vision.’ But what are the steps? You’ve got to help employees with the steps. It’s important in creating a vision and strategy to help employees connect the dots along the journey. Often the time frame that the employee is thinking about is different than you might be thinking about in a three-to five-year strategy, so helping employees get there, see the momentum of the business, and want to be a part of that and do things that create greater momentum.

Then along the way, it’s important to celebrate successes, and equally, you gain tremendous amounts of commitment from employees by being open and honest about the places where you’ve had challenges or where you haven’t succeeded and what you’re going to do to overcome and how they can help be part of that solution.

That’s another thing — just being willing to be accessible. In these sessions, we’ll take Q and A, and who knows what we get. You may get some real tough questions. The harder the questions you get, the more success you have in having established a relationship of trust with that particular population of employees because they say, ‘You know what, we’ll ask the hard ones because we’ll get a real answer.’

HOW TO REACH: Sage Software, (866) 996-SAGE or www.sagesoftware.com