Above the Trees
Software Company Gets Hands-On Advice from Home Visits With Customers
Posted Nov 23, 2004 1:29 AM CDT
By Molly McDonough
When Jenny Guttman began using Quicken software to manage her finances in 1989, she was amazed at how the program seemed intuitively to anticipate her needs. How appropriate, she remembers thinking, that the company behind Quicken called itself Intuit.
Since then, Quicken underwent so many updates and interface changes that the Oakland, Calif., certified public accountant became less enamored with the product. The program that was once a timesaver had become unbearably slow and cumbersome.
So when she got a call asking her if Intuit experts could visit her house and watch her use the product, she jumped at the chance to vent. And vent she did.
Guttman, as a slightly disgruntled Quicken user, is precisely the person Intuit has in mind when it leads these unique field trips, known as “follow me home” visits.
The brainchild of Intuit founder Scott Cook, the “follow me home” program began 15 years ago with Cook hanging out at software stores until someone bought Quicken. Cook then would persuade the customer to let him watch the customer set up the software at home. Observing firsthand how the average customer interacted with the product allowed Cook to pinpoint problems and engineer fixes faster.
Intuit reps no longer loiter in retail stores to find Quicken users. They now pick new and longtime customers from their product registration and feedback databases. But the goal is still the same.
“The biggest benefit was we could get engineers out there doing one-on-one contact with customers,” says Suzanne Taylor, a former Inuit program manager and co-author of Inside Intuit: How the Makers of Quicken Beat Microsoft and Revolutionized an Entire Industry. (Harvard Business School Press, 2003).
Engineers live and breathe software, and Taylor says they often think their innovations are easy. But seeing actual customers struggle with interfaces that they assumed to be user-friendly can be a reality check.
Quicken product manager John Flora, who led the visit to Guttman’s home, and public relations manager Chris Repetto, who has made visits, say they are impressed by how eager customers are to open their doors to teams.
“It’s not that they love the product. It’s almost that they love the opportunity to give their feedback and are surprised a company cares that much to ask them what they like about the product or don’t like about it,” Repetto says.
Centering On Specifics
Often, customers are selected so Intuit teams can assess a specific aspect of the product. During a visit to a home day-care provider to assess bill-paying features, the team noticed the owner typing in her future transactions to estimate her future cash availability. All the while, babies were crying, and at one point she had to take a break to change diapers. The team saw firsthand that time is of the essence. The resulting new feature the Monthly Bills and Scheduled Transactions Snapshot allows users to see all bills in one place and forecast balances based on scheduled bills and deposits.
Not all employees are keen on these in-your-face visits, though. Some have to be cajoled to go. But once they do, Flora says he has to turn away volunteers.
Taylor, now a marketing consultant in Menlo Park, Calif., says it’s always a good idea to find ways to learn from customers. “It’s all about the customer,” she says. “It’s really listening to the customers and making sure you understand what they really need.”
It worked for Guttman. “If you’re frustrated, and the company says, ‘Yeah, you’re right--we’re going to fix that,’ it feels good,” she says.