Listening to the customer

There is a quiet evolution under way at some of the largest software companies. I heard all about it last week from SAP AG at its SAPphire conference. And Microsoft's new president, Steve Ballmer, has made it one of the top priorities for his company. Other vendors are getting it, too: if you really want to be successful, listen to your customers. If these vendors deliver on this promised approach, all of us will be better off.

It took real chutzpah for SAP co-founder Hasso Plattner to stand in front of his top customers and admit that his product was hard to use. Compare this to last year when SAP wouldn't even concede that its product was hard to install. Plattner's admission may have been bold, but it was no real surprise to R/3 users. Many of them will tell you that the complexity of SAP's interfaces is what prevents them from taking advantage of the system's many features.

But SAP is putting its money where its challenge is. Working under a marketing scheme called EnjoySAP, it is out to change all this. SAP wants users to be more productive and feel more at ease with their installed system. These lofty goals have a very clear reason -- SAP must expand the use of R/3 within its customer base. By focusing on these "new dimension applications", SAP strives to construct software that easily addresses specific business scenarios.

To achieve this objective, SAP is sending out its development teams to meet and understand its corporate users. With this newfound knowledge, developers can construct software to address the specific challenges of those users.

And SAP is not alone. Ballmer, Microsoft's consummate listener, knows that the rest of Microsoft needs to listen better. It needs to understand why corporate users don't yet trust Microsoft's promise of Windows NT's scalability and back-end integration. Microsoft also needs to learn how to enhance other parts of its business, such as its Web operations and customer support.

To do this, Ballmer is planning to dispatch hundreds of corporate planners and product experts into the field. They will learn many aspects of their customers' frustrations -- both with the products as well as with Microsoft in general. This critical information will then help the company plan its products and support to best enhance its customers' business desires. Again, lofty goals from a company that unlike SAP hasn't readily admitted it has a problem.

But beyond Microsoft and SAP, we are seeing many other companies taking this approach.

One could argue that the reason Novell is enjoying such a strong reception for NetWare 5 is thanks to the millions of air miles Novell's management has travelled over the past year to visit customers. After management -- from CEO Eric Schmidt on down -- heard about the many upgrade and support challenges that Novell's customers faced, it ensured that this NetWare upgrade addressed these issues before its release.

This is a welcome change in our industry. Although companies such as Intuit have long demonstrated the value of listening and integrating customer feedback into products, the large leaders are finally starting to listen. While in the past, companies were comfortable building the product and then just pushing it out to their "users", today's software giants have hit the saturation point for this tactic. They have learned that the only way to expand their sometimes frustrated customer base is to listen carefully and then integrate that information into easier and more applicable products.

Let's hope this is a trend, not a fad. For if the key vendors truly will listen to their customers and build their products and support to enhance our use of their products, all of us will win.

Do you have a wish list for Microsoft or SAP? Do you believe they will integrate your suggestions into their upcoming products? Send me e-mail with your comments.

(Mark Tebbe is president of Lante Corp., a consulting and integration company in Chicago that serves clients worldwide, including several high-tech companies. Send e-mail to mtebbe@lante.com)

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