How To Not Change Your Product

Change Management on the Metal Gears on Black Background.

The blog has been silent for way too long, I know. I will do my best to continue at a better pace until life intervenes again

One of my guiding principles, at work and outside of it, has always been “no surprises”. I try to apply this principle to every interaction and relationship, customers and partners, executives and fellow employees.

Recently the validity of this principle was reaffirmed when an online service I use extensively eliminated a very valuable feature without notice. The change removed important data users have saved and, initially, did not offer any way to access it. The problem was fixed, in a very kludgey manner, only after several weeks, during which the data was not available for use. The official statement, released after the fact, claimed this was done in the name of user experience improvement

The vendor’s customer support team provided a response along the lines of We have your data, you just can’t see it. We plan to make it available again, but don’t have a time estimate.

Having encountered similar situations in the past, there are several guidelines I’ve always relied on when making product changes with potential impact to customers:

  • Plan Well – understand the change you are introducing, the variety of ways it will affect customers, and the number of customers impacted. SaaS vendors, especially, have more detailed knowledge of their customers than on-premise, and should use that information
  • Weigh the need – ask yourself whether the benefit offered justifies the impact to customers’ ability to derive value from your product or service
  • Seek customers’ input – invite customers to offer their perspective on complex or high impact changes. This can be done in a variety of ways, from 1:1 conversations through surveys all the way to open discussions on your community sites or during user group meetings
  • Communicate deliberately:
    • Provide sufficient advance notice – let your customers know the time a change will take place, and do it well in advance of the change so that they are able to prepare for it. If your customers’ business follow a business cycle, aim for the low activity periods
    • Explain the impact the change will have, list ways with which customers could minimize or eliminate this impact and explain the benefits in case they are not immediately obvious
    • If customer data or their ability to access it will change in any way, explain the data’s disposition – what will happen to it, how it can be accessed, when it will be available for use again
    • Provide a mechanism to circumvent the problem – for example, in this example allow customers to download a copy of the data for offline use
    • Offer a mechanism for feedback at each and every stage
  • Prepare for impact – arm your support team with answers and talking points. Some customers will invariably be unhappy about this change, ensure your support team is not facing them empty handed

Obviously, different demographics call for different methods. High end enterprise vendors could schedule individual meetings with customers to prepare for high impact changes, while those in the consumer markets could send a single generic email with instructions. In any case, however, do not leave your customers in the dark!

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