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Listening to Customers is Hard, Hard, Hard  

I just finished reading a great article, written by Albert Wenger at his Continuations blog. Albert is a partner at Union Square Ventures and I’ve found his writings to be concise (always appreciated) and meaningful. Last week, he wrote about the importance and difficulty of listening to your customers. More food-for-thought than advice, the article throws out three questions and some common problems associated with each.

As we continue to build CreateDebate into a business, we have frequently found ourselves addressing these same questions. In the spirit of transparency, I thought I would take a crack at answering Albert’s questions from the current perspectives of the CreateDebate team.

Which customers should we listen to?

This question should probably read: Should we listen to our early-adopters or should we listen to what we believe to be our “mainstream” customers? We are about 1 week into our public beta and, fortunately, we already have a nice stable of committed early-adopters that have found real utility in using CreateDebate. We are thrilled about this and we are committed to rewarding our early-adopters with a feature set that over delivers on their requests. At the same time, however, we must remain fully-focused on building CreateDebate into a highly scalable decision-making tool that is capable of providing significant value to paying customers.

Paying Customers? Don’t worry, we’ll never charge you to use CreateDebate.com. Rather, at some point in the near future, we do expect to charge licensing fees in exchange for private use of the CreateDebate application software. We have already been contacted by several enterprise & governmental organizations interested in deploying our software and we think this business model has a significant amount of promise.

At the end of the day, the answer to this question isn’t as tricky as it seems. First and foremost, we are dedicated to building CreateDebate into a community. To be successful, we must embrace our early adopters and their new feature requests. We always discuss new feature requests as a team and do our best to prioritize and temper those requests against our vision of the “mainstream” customer. In a nutshell, our strategy is to grow our community by continually improving our software. By doing so, it is our hope that the CreateDebate application will become a powerful decision-making software package worth paying for.

How should we listen to our customers?

We get a lot of critical feedback and suggestions via email. At this stage in the game, virtually every email that we receive prompts a personal response. We alway log the comments and do our best to group and prioritize them. The problem with email feedback, though, is that it sometimes proves difficult to accurately deduce exactly what our community really needs, as opposed to what a small, vocal subset of our community thinks that it wants.

In light of this contradiction, our preferred forum for listening to our customers has become the website itself. Last week, one of the most popular debates on CreateDebate focused on the new features that people would like to see incorporated the site. The debate spurred lots of arguments and votes and gave us a much better perspective on the new features that our community needs. As a result, we went to work and delivered a bunch of new features over the weekend, including:

  • A new way to sort the arguments within a debate (“Sort By Newest”)
  • A better way to catch up on new activity (“New Activity Quick Glance”)
  • Permalinks for each argument to facilitate more sharing
  • RSS feeds for the Most Heated and Newest debates
  • A more secure Address Book

How should we reconcile listening to our customers with our strategy?

Our goal is to build an incredibly useful tool that will help groups of people to sort through issues, viewpoints and opinions so that better decisions can be made. I’ve already noted that our strategy is to grow our community by continually improving our software. This is a strategy that we fully believe in and are committed to following. To that end, we are dedicated to making listening to customers a priority and constant process as opposed to a one off exercise.

As far as the reconciliation process goes, I’m afraid that we haven’t yet fully figured it out. The good news, however, is that we are aware of the importance of the task at hand. I fully expect this year to be full of twists and turns as our community grows and our software becomes more sophisticated. Most of all, I hope that you will stay around to help us grow and let us know what we are doing right (and not-so-right). If you have feedback, please share!

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Written by Loudacris

May 5th, 2008 at 5:27 pm

Posted in New Features,Random Musings

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