The article was originally published in Forbes.com
“Customer” – the word relating to one of the most important components of any business. Everything in the business world revolves around customers. We care about the number of customers, the level of their loyalty to a brand and their satisfaction. Their feedback defines how the business develops and what direction it takes. It is no surprise, then, that the KPIs based on customers’ feedback are the key points for businesses.
In the software development, if a team fails commitments to customers, the reason lies not solely in the development process. Quite often the reason of failure is that the team does not know how to interact with customers correctly.
As an outsourcing software service, we understand that the high level of customer satisfaction is everything to us. In software business, satisfied customers easily turn into loyal ones. They promote the brand, refer us and sometimes do the up-sale. Having such ardent brand followers means a lot. It strongly motivates businesses to develop and perfect the customer care system. The happier our customers get with our services, the stronger our brand.
How to make happy customers in the outsourcing business?
This is quite a challenging objective. We developed many procedures and processes to accomplish it. Though our approach had various effects on different stages of its development, we learned our lessons and managed to create a so-called success formula.
At Intetics, we named it Meaningful Customer Care. It is the part of the Predictive Software Engineering (PSE) framework created by our president, Boris Kontsevoi, and is the first framework component we are covering.
What is inside?
The elements of the Meaning Customer Care are:
- Seamless customer onboarding process
- Customer portal
- Governance model
- Clear escalation path
- Early problems discovery
- Deep customer complaints analysis
- Customer satisfaction control
Seamless customer onboarding process
Just as for many software development outsourcing companies, one of our KPIs is the growth of the number of projects (and customers). The non-stop process of the new opportunities searches results in launching several projects per month in different company departments.
With that comes the risk of launching a project the way the project manager wants. In the long run, this results in dozens of projects each running their own way, which is literal chaos.
The beginning of the project is a sensitive moment that defines success, and we want to be sure that all the critical steps are handled the same way throughout the company. We achieve this by implementing a seamless customer onboarding process.
It starts before the actual project when a salesperson discusses the deal with the client. The salesperson introduces the customer into the operation details and explains the project roadmap. This gives the customer a clear vision of the company approach to the request completion.
Once the customer agrees to proceed, the project processes are launched just as discussed. The project manager assigned to the project reaches out to the customer, and together, they establish the communication, reporting, escalation and other relevant processes needed to fulfill the project’s requirements. They are standard for each project, though they may vary in some aspects, but in general, they are the same. This way, each customer receives the correct onboarding in a company and nothing will be omitted.
It is important to have a standard process from the project start. The project launch is a challenging period for a company. Often it is referred to as a trial period when a client decides if the vendor has chosen wisely. The clear customer onboarding process mitigates the risk of human errors, and gives us control over project execution from day one.
The customer portal is at some point a continuation of the seamless onboarding process. This tool provides our customers with the big picture of what is going on on the project at any specific moment of time. In our case, the customer portal is a web-based and mobile application that gives the project overview based on the following points:
- Project name and a short description
- Project department name
- Project manager and team members names
- Link to source control
- Links to managerial tools: scrum tools, project documentation
- Project quality reports
- Escalation flow activities and description
- Contract management details
- Invoicing and payments history
The customer portal is another great tool that standardizes the process of work.
In our company, we care about a customer on all levels of the hierarchy – from a junior engineer to CEO. As a service provider, we are supposed to give every customer our full attention. Sometimes it is difficult to keep an eye on everyone. Thus, we have developed a Governance model of meetings with customers.
Establishing the project process during the onboarding process includes the step of setting up the reporting and communication approach, we call it a governance model. Inside it, we define a list of status meetings with customers that usually have the following model:
- Weekly status meeting with the project manager. This is the meeting where customer discusses managerial (not tech) aspects of the project.
- Bi-weekly status meetings with the project manager and the department director that is managing this project on the customer side. This is also not a tech meeting. The members discuss plans, issues, and action items related to managerial aspects of the project.
- Yearly/ half a year (based on the customer decision) meetings with CTO and COO. This is a high-level meeting where members discuss general project status and long terms plans.
- On-site customer visits. We try to visit all of our customers at least once a year on their premises. Usually, our C-suite and department directors participate in these meetings.
All the meetings described have a clear objective, structure, and format. We use detailed templates for each meeting and its format. If some meetings do not deliver the expected results, we do the analysis and discuss it with the customer to remove the obstacle that blocks the process.
Clear escalation path
Having access to the customer portal, the customer receives the escalation flow. From the very beginning of our collaboration, the customer knows how to escalate any problem related to the project. This allows leaving no concerns unnoticed.
The governance meeting is another process where a customer can escalate problems. However, we keep it as the best practice and suggest our customers raise the issue as they arise, without expecting a meeting. Every customer complaint receives a “red flag”, meaning that the solution should be provided ASAP. Using this approach, the customer can escalate the issue from a project manager to the C-Suite if it is necessary.
The escalation path follows strict rules and timelines, in case the issues did not fix on the project manager level, the escalation moves to the upper management level. With this escalation path, the customer understands the complaint and issues or request will not be missed. The customer understands that we guarantee the feedback.
Early problems discovery
It is well-known that the earlier you identify the problem, the more chance you have of solving it.
Keeping this in mind, along with the clear onboarding process, customer portal, and the escalation path, we have developed the procedure named “Proactive project monitoring”.
The idea is looking at the situation from different sides. We analyze the project from the customer’s perspective, internal risks, such as people leaving the project, and factors that impact the project scope.
For example, when the potential team is growing, this is a positive factor. However, if we are not ready for the team growth, this may negatively affect the project flow.
Following the Proactive project monitoring approach, we use a simple table project manager and department head review monthly. If there is any “YES” answer, we launch the process of problem fixing.
All these items are under CTO control. Each quarter, the CTO runs a meeting together with the director and project managers to review the projects statuses and track all of the open issues.
Applying this approach, we mitigate issues at an early stage, and thus improve the level of customers’ satisfaction.
Deep customer complaints analysis
At Intetics, we stick to the idea that customer complaints are developers’ best friends. Those who do not accept that, most probably are at the beginning of their business way. The complaints give you a hint of whether you are following the right direction or not.
Oftentimes the price of the neglected complaint is too high, and you will most probably not finish the project on time. We cannot afford that, for that reason we recommend having short cycles on the project. This ensures on-time complaint feedback. As soon as we receive the complaint, the analysis process launches.
The analysis is the beginning of handling, in fact.
The next step is to create action items to handle the current complaint and ensure we will not encounter a similar situation in the future. We assign people to each specific action item. This process is completely under the C-level control. In doing so, we prevent the recurrence of the typical issues.
Customer satisfaction control
Tracking customer satisfaction is another major activity in the Meaningful customer care approach. We tested different techniques such as surveys, questionnaires and meetings, and came to realize that filling out forms and having boring meetings do not work.
We decided to go away from boring stats gathering. Today we collect this data as simply as can be.
Our CTO and/or COO have a call with every customer representative twice a year. During this call, they discuss the project status, updates, results, and everything we completed and achieved during the previous six months. During the call, the CTO/COO asks a list of simple yes-no questions.
Later on, we analyze the talk and the answers. They give us an idea as to whether the customer is satisfied with the collaboration. The approach literally requires minimum effort from the customer. No papers, no emails, no boring charts, just a private talk, and several simple questions.
Combined together, the element of the Meaningful customer care principle gives the customer a clear vision of what is going on with the project. The customer understands how to reach out to us, how to work with us, and what process we follow. It is important for a customer to feel that the business needs are filled. In fact, of all that is obvious, however, few software providers apply these rules. Sticking to these simple truths, our business makes the customer feel that we care about every request.