I’ve spent most of my career working the interface between suppliers and their B2B customers. One lesson I’ve learned involves understanding how customers view time; specifically, how they view deadlines when their suppliers make promises. Let me explore this by telling two stories.
First was an experience long ago when I was a newly-minted product manager for EDS. The product I was assigned was something that added value to Motorola’s mobile phone switches, to the extent that Motorola had agreed to sell our product to its cellular customers around the world. That was the good news. The bad news was we had missed two product delivery dates, and now I was sitting with the product developer to come up with a (second) revised schedule. I didn’t know much at that point, but I did know I didn’t want to slip another date.
When I reviewed the schedule with the product developer, I asked him about some of the assumptions underlying his dates. “Well, I am estimating 60 hours per week to get us to the April date.”
“Why did you pick April?”
“I want to get it to them as soon as possible, since we missed the prior dates.”
I thought for a few moments. “OK, try this. When could we deliver if you plan for 40 hours a week?”
“All right,”I said. “Let’s go with that plan. I will communicate with Motorola and tell them we will get the release to them in mid-May. You start working, and you may still need to work 60 hours at the end. But at least we’ll have them the release when we promised.”
And we did. Motorola was pleasantly surprised to get the product when we promised, and the developer was happy to have delivered on time as well.
Second story: in the late 90’s I was running client delivery for a managed services company. A customer we had was constantly asking us for changes “immediately.” When I dug into the situation, I found we had a history of delivering well after our estimates. As a result, when we gave this customer a date, they planned for it to be late and at the same time pressured the team intensely to make the date as little late as possible. Both the customer and the team were terribly unhappy with the situation.
We worked to fix our processes with that customer – making sure enough resources were assigned to their work, only giving them dates we could commit to and then delivering to those commitments – and then (the long part) to retrain the customer to tell us when they REALLY needed something so we could plan appropriately.
The moral of the stories is that customers value a date certain so they can set expectations and address dependencies in their business. Early is great; fast is great; but predictable and reliable are essential.
Non-customer-facing staff often interpret schedule requests from sales and account management as the “immediately” requests of that difficult customer. Sales and account management frequently don’t inquire from a customer when they truly need something – they also assume “immediately” is the answer. The pressure is raised, and deliveries slip. It’s time to come clean. Sales: find out when customers really need something, and don’t coerce dates internally that your team can’t meet. Internal support: give dates you can meet and deliver on those commitments, and don’t cave to pressure for the “immediate” that never happens.
And remember: whenever you promise an aggressive date to a customer, beware that the cost of missing that date will far outweigh any benefit they would have gotten from a slightly faster delivery.
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