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Sweat the details: The customer-centric path for SaaS providers

Guest blogger Dan Miller offers advice to SaaS product teams about adapting work processes to ensure better customer satisfaction.
By Dan Miller, Intacct

A thorn in on-premise software is that vendors are slow to release upgrades. If these gargantuan releases include defects, which happens in software, it can take many months to get fixes out to customers. As a result, customers often hesitate to upgrade until the others in the market have tested the new release. So they wait for the service pack. For a major release, they may wait as long as two years before getting the new version.

With SaaS, developers have the opportunity to change the way they design products and be much more responsive to customers. Since releases occur four times a year and SaaS providers focus on constant refinement, customers don't have to wait long for a feature that they really want. Issues and defects can be resolved in days or weeks. SaaS providers must think about building the highest quality into the product with every quarterly release. They have to think and operate this way, since customers don't have the option of upgrading or not or waiting for the service pack. New features and enhancements must be bulletproof the first time around. If there is a mistake, it must be fixed as soon as possible.

This continual upgrade cycle requires a different mindset from product teams. First, SaaS providers have the responsibility of providing instant user value with new features. When a user first experiences a new or improved feature, they should say, "Wow!" The goal is to deliver upgrades which go far beyond a user interface update or a new buried feature that requires configuration to use. Product enhancements should noticeably improve a user's interactions with the software, save them time and money, and add real value.

Secondly, learning should be integrated into the experience of using the product, instead of becoming a separate activity. Imagine the frustration of users logging on to their application as they do most every day, but suddenly, a familiar feature has changed and they have no idea how to complete the task at hand. That shouldn't happen. The new feature should be simple to learn the first time and learning materials should appear in context to guide the user effortlessly through the process.

The customer-centric user experience is what most software vendors aspire to, yet to get it right, development teams need to adopt a new approach when creating and modifying apps. The process requires granular attention to details such as refining field labels to accommodate different user roles or enabling keystroke shortcuts for repetitive tasks. It requires making tough calls when deadlines approach. The good news is, since SaaS vendors are releasing application updates more often, delaying a change until it's truly ready is no longer a sales disaster.

Below, I've outlined a few ways that product teams can adapt their work processes to achieve a more customer-centric user experience.

1. Get it right the first time (or if you don't, keep at it): The first mantra is making the decision to build it right or not ship an update if it is not ready. If it's almost time to release the quarterly update but a feature isn't quite ready, hold the feature until the next quarter. A delay of a quarter in the big picture is not long, while releasing a feature that has issues can be painful for the customer-and your support team. Development teams must stick to this process regardless of how minor or how infrequently-used a particular feature is. Yes, it's frustrating to miss a release for a feature a product team is invested in, but it pays off. The high level of quality in your product is what keeps customers coming back and what enables vendors to compete in a tough market. As a SaaS vendor, you must continually re-earn the business of your customers. 2. Help users be more productive: Designing products and interfaces that speed learning and delight customers should be the goal of every software company. This can manifest itself in many ways. "Learning by doing" is the most efficient way software firms can deliver online help support. Other help features such as context-sensitive fields provide one-click access to concepts and offer much more information than what is available in a tool tip. This is effective for previewing options, refreshing your memory of how to complete a complex task, and for exploring capabilities you haven't used before. 3. Cross-functional teams: Create teams with broader skills. Look for people with expertise about the needs of your software's novice users, and not just expert users. In addition to the best technical developers you can hire, also look for team members that are user interface and user experience experts. Typically, that involves multiple product managers early in the stage of design so that they can provide feedback from their unique backgrounds during development, instead of right before the release when it's stressful and costly to make major changes. Incorporating these varied perspectives will help to identify everything needed for a feature to be great, and also reduce overall development time.

It's sometimes counterintuitive for product teams to do multiple, painstaking revisions during the early stages of development. Sometimes it feels like you should just get it out there in the hands of customers. Yet after going through this process a few times, your team will see the results of these efforts in a clean, highly-intuitive feature out of the gates. Seeing the increase in customer satisfaction and a reduction in customer issues, it's easier all the time to sweat the details first, instead of fighting fires later.

Dan Miller is vice president of product management at Intacct. He has more than 20 years of product management, product design, and engineering experience in financial management. At Intacct, Dan leads the product management and user experience teams.

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