Friday, September 30, 2011

Speak softly and carry an extension pole

Making your customer happy can be difficult, no matter what your line of work.  When developing features in software, we know we'll never make all of the customers happy all the time, so we often cite the 80-20 rule: 80% of your customers will use 20% of the features, etc.  It's a good rule to remember when deciding which features to ship that will make your customers happy.

The longer I'm in the software development industry, the more I become aware of the need to listen for features the customer needs, as opposed to the features they want.  It's a subtle but important difference, and I've been lucky to work with several people who are experts at differentiating the two.  Sometimes I'm successful at it...other times (like this past week), not so much.  It is rare that I get to experience this applied to myself.

Last weekend I went to Home Depot.  I've been painting a few walls in our new place in Austin and had reached the wall in the living room which goes up to the 15-foot vaulted ceiling.  There was no way I could use my step stool to reach the top of the wall.  I'd need a ladder to get up that high.  Not just any ladder: a big ladder, preferably a 12-footer.  Since I drive a Prius, I'd also have to rent a truck to haul it.

These were the thoughts in my head when I drove to the Home Depot to check rental prices.  The ladder would be $24 for four hours, and the truck was close to $30 for just over an hour.  Not only was this going to be an expensive task, it would have to be fast.

The next morning, I went back to the store to pick up the ladder and truck so I could get it over with.  A different associate was working at the rental center.  "What do you need a ladder for?," she asked.

"I'm painting a 15 foot ceiling and can't reach the top with my roller brush."

"Oh, I see.  I think our extension poles will reach that far."

Extension poles?

Next time you're painting, take a look at your roller brush handle.  See that threaded hole in the bottom?  It's a standard size so you can add extensions to your brush.  For $5 I got a six foot pole, which is, of course, reusable.  I even ended up utilizing it on the parts of the wall I could reach without my stool, because it gave me more leverage on the brush and didn't wear out my forearms.

By taking the time to listen and understand my problem, the associate saved me time, hassle, and a lot of money.  She also helped me remember that just because a customer understands their problem, it doesn't mean they understand their solution.