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Customer-Centric to the Core

Published By Jon Terry

At Planview AgilePlace, Lean isn’t just the product we sell. It’s in our name because we passionately believed in it when we founded the company, and we still do today.

By embracing Lean across our company, we’ve adopted a customer-centric approach — not only in our product development, but also in every other department, from finance and accounting to sales and marketing.

We’ve taught Lean principles to all of our employees since day one, using a comprehensive continuous education program that references the innovative ideas of our own employees, as well as a host of historical and contemporary Lean thought leaders.

CustomerCentric Selling (CCS) — one of the latest training opportunities for Planview AgilePlace team members who interact regularly with customers — didn’t start out as an intentional way to further the ways in which we apply Lean to our daily work. But, when I recently attended the CCS course, I was thrilled to discover its correlation with the core principles of Lean and Kanban.

Here’s my interpretation of how they’re aligned.

Lean: A Virtuous Cycle of Continuous Improvement

Eliminate Waste

If your customer wouldn’t pay for it, it’s waste. Be on a quest to eliminate all of the waste that the law will allow.

CCS encourages us to remember that customers don’t buy product features; they buy a better version of themselves. Through that lens, we can more clearly identify what customers define as their essential features (i.e., what they see as value, and what they see as waste).

When we sell buyers on features we have — but they don’t need — we might land an initial sale, but we don’t position them for long-term customer delight. That’s waste for our customers, and ultimately, it’s waste for us, too.

To focus on long-term results, we should work closely with buyers to elicit their goals, craft solutions (whether that rests on AgilePlace’s features, services or partners) that match those goals, and give them a clear picture of how Planview AgilePlace enables them to succeed on their terms — not ours.

Most of all, we shouldn’t waste their time (or ours) if our capabilities and their needs are a poor match. We should move on to where we can deliver and earn maximum value.

Build Quality In

Use testing to fix your process, not your product. Use automation and standard processes to make errors ever less possible.

Since we began practicing CCS, we have built, and are continuously evolving, sales-ready messaging that will make each successive sale more likely to succeed because it builds on the lessons of the last. Win-loss analysis is squarely focused on tuning the process and never blaming people.

We enlist sales tools, things like SFDC, Eloqua, Totango, and Planview AgilePlace(!) to make the most standard parts of our processes fully automatic. We can then invest all of our creativity and intellect in the parts of each deal that need to be fully customized and bring the most value to customers.

Create Knowledge

When building new products and services, we create new knowledge by doing — and best retain the knowledge via stable teams.

While based on our standard core technology, the individualized solution that we provide to each customer will be different each time (from a customer’s perspective), because the sales team and the customer work together to jointly craft the outcome.

To do so, we aim to elicit their known goals and surface their implicit goals — things they never knew they needed but become crucial to their success — through our patient questioning and advice.

By aligning sales team members — and marketing folks — so they regularly work together on the same accounts, in the same geographies and industry verticals, we can create ever faster and more effective feedback loops of learning and improved service.

Defer Commitment

Defer irrevocable decisions as long as possible. Invest in processes and tools that make ever more decisions revocable.

From need identification to solution evaluation and purchase, there’s a natural cycle to any buyer’s journey. CCS teaches us that engaging a buyer in the wrong way, and at a premature stage, can lock us into the wrong conversation. We shouldn’t discuss features until we clearly understand goals and the associated business solutions that the features may support. We identify key stakeholders to ensure we connect with them at the appropriate moment in the process for their unique needs.

Deliver Fast

Learning truly begins when the customer gets the product. Deliver to them as quickly and iteratively as you possibly can. No. Faster.

We follow a continuous, iterative process of eliciting information from prospects and then quickly sharing back that information with them in a series of well-crafted, standard sales deliverables. This ensures that we disqualify prospects who aren’t a good fit as early as possible, which saves us both valuable time. It also ensures that we eventually bring prospects who are a good fit to the negotiating table in a spirit of partnership that’s built on a true meeting of the minds.

Respect People

An innovative, profitable company relies entirely on the brains and hearts of its employees. They must have autonomy, mastery and purpose.

In the CCS model, we see “respect for people” work in the following ways: We respect our customers by not wasting their time on a deal that won’t work for them. And we most definitely respect their expertise about their purpose and domain. We leave ownership of results where it properly belongs — with the customer. We can empower them with ideas built on our product capabilities, but the solution is theirs.

We also respect our Planview AgilePlace team. Salespeople aren’t forced to run fruitlessly and furiously on the hamster wheel of a pipeline full of illusions. Marketers don’t waste time on materials that won’t truly help the process, or spend money on the wrong leads. Customer Success gets a clean, clear handoff with a map of customer goals which they can help achieve in the coming months and years.

We follow a well-documented, repeatable process that provides a clear path to mastery for our salespeople and points them clearly toward our most important purpose — providing value to customers.

Optimize The Whole

Your company is a value stream, from concept to cash. Optimize that flow, and not the workings of individual departments.

According to our CCS trainer, when customers want an easy “out” from a bad sales process, they will almost always blame the product. They don’t want to hurt the salesperson, so they blame the inanimate object. In a typical non-CCS sale, a salesperson leads with product features without really understanding needs. They bombard the prospect with buttons, so it’s natural for the prospect to blame their decision not to buy on one of those buttons (or lack thereof).

Non-CCS salespeople who repeatedly endure hearing, “No!” from prospects — after they invest tons of effort in deals that they should have abandoned — have a ready-made excuse for their missed quota goals. “It’s the product! If only it had X, we would all cruise to riches.”

Of course, every software company can improve the product. We need to build great, new features as fast as we can. But we want to be focused on the right features so that we can invest extra effort in refining each one to be delightful to use. The CCS process protects us from a deluge of bad ideas and instead gives the product organization a priceless gift: salespeople who are trusted and respected by our customers and who really understand their needs.

Kanban: See Better to Evolve Together

Visualize workflow

Make your up-to-date work and workflow visible to the team and its stakeholders, at all times.

Well, it was too good to be true. CCS doesn’t quite align perfectly with Lean and Kanban. It doesn’t explicitly teach salespeople to visualize their pipelines or their process for developing sales-ready materials and deal documents.

But, never fear, we absolutely do visualize sales activities at Planview AgilePlace. And, who knows, maybe we can teach the CCS folks how to do it!

Limit WIP

Focus your efforts on fewer things at a time to ensure a faster flow of higher quality results to your customer.

CCS teaches salespeople to sharply cut their pipelines down to just the well-qualified deals they can win. As with WIP limitation in product development (or any other field), trimming our pipeline reduces noise and allows us to focus on the right work. Sales teams can invest proper effort into closing fewer deals in the right, rigorous way.

If we limit WIP, we never have to say “That process sounds great in theory, but we’re too busy for all of that right now!” We believe that more focus on fewer, higher quality opportunities will generate the correct result from the process — a higher chance of winning business. Our goal is to create and earn value, not be “busy.”

Manage Flow

Use your board and the data it generates to identify and iteratively remove impediments to work flowing smoothly through your system.

By focusing on fewer deals and executing them properly, our salespeople can expect to deliver a smoother flow of results. There’s less garbage in the system to falsely pump up forecasts and leave behind lumpy results. Fewer, better deals also gives us better, cleaner data, allowing us to shift our revenue forecasting from guessing to projecting trends. It also gives us real data for continuously improving our methods.

Make Process Policies Explicit

Build your standards into the way you do work, rather than bury them in policy documents. Make doing the right thing obvious and easy. 

CCS is built from the ground up on standard documents that sales teams are trained to use and create — every single time they engage with a customer. These documents aren’t dusty manuals on the shelf but rather the foundation of every deal. If the standards aren’t followed, the deal doesn’t go forward. Simple as that.

Improve Collaboratively

Work together to improve continuously, with a laser focus on your results as a team, rather than individual efforts.

CCS gives multiple teams at Planview AgilePlace a clear, easy-to-follow roadmap for better customer engagement: Our salespeople can consistently interact directly with customers in a collaborative manner. Our product marketers can shape materials based on deeper knowledge. Our lead generation team can gain invaluable information about the proper targets for our campaigns — the right potential customers who would truly benefit from our product.

Our Customer Success team can take customers onboard with confidence, knowing that we understand their goals. We can use those goals to track progress, ensure retention, and ideally, encourage expansion. And our product teams get exactly what they want and need to do their jobs, the right customers for our product and a clear channel for ongoing conversation about the product roadmap.

Final Thoughts

As a company of Lean practitioners — whether we build, market, sell or support the products we offer — we aspire to practice Lean in every aspect of our work. We believe that Lean isn’t as much of a final destination as it is a never-ending process of building, measuring, learning, and improving. The more we learn, the better we’ll be as a company, and the better we’ll be able to serve our customers.

We welcome your questions, comments, and suggestions.

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Written by Jon Terry Chief Evangelist, Lean-Agile Strategy

Jon Terry is Chief Evangelist, Lean-Agile Strategy for Planview, a market leading provider of portfolio management, agile management, collaboration, and ideation software. Before that Jon was co-CEO and co-founder of LeanKit, which pioneered the application of Kanban in knowledge work. Prior to that, Jon held a number of senior IT positions with hospital-giant HCA and its logistics subsidiary, HealthTrust Purchasing Group. He was among those responsible for launching HCA’s adoption of Lean-Agile methods.