Learning first Featured

8:00pm EDT October 26, 2009

Before co-founding KIT Solutions LLC, Xiaoyan Zhang taught sociology at the University of Pittsburgh. But now, the president and CEO plays the role of student.

“To be able to be a good student is the first step to be a good leader,” says Zhang, who leads 70 employees. “Our customer becomes our partner because we’re willing to learn from them.”

Instead of lecturing agencies about the IT solutions he offers, Zhang’s first priority is understanding what customers need.

With that mindset, Zhang propelled KIT from 2007 revenue of $2.8 million to $5.3 million in 2008.

Smart Business spoke with Zhang about building a learning community with your customers.

Q. How do you learn customers’ needs?

You can work with your client as a pharmacist or as a doctor. When you walk into a pharmacy, you say you have a headache, so they’ll give you Advil, and they’ll accurately describe to you what each medication can do. But they’re not in position to diagnose your problem.

If you go to see a doctor, before they offer you any medication, they first try to understand what is your problem, what is your root cause of your symptom. Once they understand that, then they’ll prescribe certain medications.

We should come in thinking as a doctor. Our first step is to understand their problem, and then you offer some solution.

I go to our customers, before I even show anything, I start talking to them about their need and talking about the pain they have to go through.

So I usually go in to say, ‘Based on my study of this field and what I learned from other customers, these are typical problems you face. Is that true?’

And then have your customer start talking to you about their problem. So I usually try to ask customers, ‘What is your biggest headache you wish you [could] solve today? What are things you want?’ Then I try to find out whether we have already run into similar situations before.

Then I open up to say, ‘Do you like to know how the other customers I work with deal with this kind of problem and what kind of solution we have worked out for them?’

Before I show a thing to them, they already jumped on board. They want to see what that is.

Q. How do you share other customers’ solutions?

They have these close-knit professional communities. No matter how slick your brochure is, no matter how much you talk to them, no matter how much benefit you can demonstrate to them, they will not make that final purchasing decision until they talk to some of their colleagues.

The best way is to share with them what we do with other [customers]. Say, ‘This is what we learn from them. This is the kind of problem they run into. This is how we offer a solution. And they’re happy with this solution.’ Then we can offer to them the contact person. Let them talk to the other [customers] objectively.

It truly is a learning community. They talk to each other constantly. You have to be involved and know what they’re talking about. To establish yourself as a leader in that market, join those [professional] conferences. Sponsor learning communities.

We can’t pay for their travel, so we tag onto their professional conference. Usually we tag on the day before the conference officially starts. We’ll host a learning community. We actually open that to other people who are interested; they don’t have to be our customer.

We usually invite about four or five [customers] to do a presentation of themselves and about the feature they [use] and how that benefited them. Besides that, our tech support people will give an overall profile of the tech support phone calls we got from all different customers and what they tell us. They like to hear what kind of problems we run into most. And then we also have project managers of different states highlighting the new features and potential new development.

We videotape some of those and we have photos. We have a Web site [where we] post all those things after the conference so everybody from the learning community can come back to post their questions, to have blogs and to look at videos. People who were not able to attend can also view those videos online.

So we begin to create a little professional network. People like to learn from their professional peers. That’s their best information source.

Q. How do you entrust customers to represent your company?

If our goal is to produce the very best solution for the field — not just for one [customer] — then we shouldn’t be afraid, whatever our customers say, good and bad and ugly. That brutal honesty, in the end, truly establishes [us] as honest and as a company they can trust.

Many companies pay others to test their product to find out what’s working, what’s not working. Here we have free advice from our customers. Isn’t that a benefit?

We [have a] win-win-win philosophy. As a business, we have to win so we can sustain our business. But at the same time, we also want our customer to win. That means the customer has to get the true value out of this. But that’s not enough. We have to have a third win. That third win is working together as a partner building this learning community, so together we actually can make a contribution to the entire field.

It is one thing to make a business. It is another thing [to have] your customers like you. But the best is [if] you can say we made a difference for this whole field.

How to reach: KIT Solutions LLC, (412) 366-7188 or www.kitsolutions.net