You could ask Mark Symonds how he plans to grow Plex Systems Inc. Or you could just ask his customers.
Symonds, the president and CEO, relies on their feedback to spur innovation in the company, which makes software solutions for the manufacturing industry.
He builds feedback mechanisms into the software but also provides an option for more intimate interaction by assigning main contacts to each customer.
“The nature of our whole business model is that we’re in tight contact with our customers,” he says.
Symonds also gets involved in customer organizations — even serving on the board of the Precision Metalforming Association — to hear firsthand what his customers are facing.
To keep Plex Systems pointed in the right direction, he continually aligns customer requests with the company principles and initial project objectives.
“The customer is usually right,” says Symonds, who led 130 employees to 2008 revenue of more than $20 million. “But you have to make sure it’s an interactive discussion.”
Smart Business spoke to Symonds about how to get ideas from your customers.
Go where customers go. Customer needs change; the marketplace changes. So being able to listen to what customers need and then rapidly innovate, that’s what you need to do to grow. Not keep doing the same old thing but rather come up with new ways to address problems.
Find a way to stay close. It’s getting involved in industry associations so you hear the regulation issues, the financial challenges and so on facing your customers. Go where the customers go.
Don’t be trapped in your office. There’s so much to do that there’s a real temptation to be trapped in your office. Get out and visit customers and then follow up. When I hear about an issue, I dog it until it’s done, and I keep the customer informed of those issues. That builds trust and credibility. But it’s not easy. It’s getting out, driving a few hours to see customers. You can always think of something else you’ve got to do, but that’s absolutely critical.
Bring customers in. A customer advisory board [is] one way to stay close to your customers and ensure that they have a forum to be heard.
We put together a customer advisory board, a means of focusing the input from our customers. The customer advisory board meets every three or four months, and it tends to be more strategic issues, like how do we communicate to our customers. They’ve suggested improvements to our support process.
We had a lot of discussion as to what this one should look like. Should it be our biggest customers? Should it be a cross section? Should it be the most avid users? Should it be across industries or focused on one?
People are most interested in things that affect their industry. If they’re going to talk to somebody, they want to talk to somebody who understands their industry. So for instance, the first one we selected was automotive. We selected a cross section: our biggest customers and our oldest, big and small. But the people we invited are those that are passionate about their business, passionate about improving their business and about how [we] can help them improve their business. So that was the yardstick that we used to select customers to participate.
I bring in the key people [from our company] who need to hear firsthand what customers are saying. It’s really top-level involvement so our customers know we’re taking it seriously and they see the action and the follow-up.
Create an outlet for input. On every screen in our [software] system, there’s a button [customers] can click on and then fill out a user support request. They can direct it to anyone in the company or just into the general pool where it gets evaluated and triaged and scheduled. They can make it a critical/urgent, in which case it goes to everybody in the company. If the main people working on their account are on vacation, then somebody will jump on it because it goes to everybody in the organization.
It goes into a database with a priority — critical, nice to have, that kind of thing. Our team leaders get notified the instant those go in the database so they can continually look at the number of requests in a given area and start to draw conclusions about, ‘Boy, this topic is very popular and important to a number of customers. Let’s focus on that.’
Likewise, the sales team uses the same system to put in requests for changes to the product to support things they’ve learned about in the sales process. So we capture all those requests in a database and then our team leaders review those requests, determine which ones are most pressing and most valuable to our customers and then pursue those.
If a customer is willing to pay for an enhancement, that’s a good signal that it’s important to them. So that’s one measure. Then the sheer frequency and the priority of the requests from the customers are the next indicator. If 10 customers are saying, ‘It’s absolutely critical to my business,’ that’s a higher priority than two customers saying, ‘It’d be nice to have.’
Keep customer requests in perspective. The biggest reason for failure is a failure to manage the scope, meaning once people are into it, they say, ‘Oh, it would be a great idea to do this, this, this and this.’ If they pursue all of those ideas, they’ll never get done. That’s the most common failure. Our team is really focused on what are the business objectives and let’s stay focused on that. Get that achieved, then we’ll look at other opportunities for improvement.
Identify critical success factors at the start of a project. We try to manage expectations on how the project will go and what kind of pitfalls can come about. So addressing that upfront really helps down the road.
When you’re in the heat of battle, you’re midway through the project, you can fall back on those agreements and those guidelines that you laid out upfront. [It’s a] reminder as to what the implications are of not watching the scope, not managing the project carefully.
How to reach: Plex Systems Inc., (248) 391-8001 or www.plex.com