A few years ago I read the book “Insides Steve’s Brain” by Leander Kahney, and it got me thinking. At the time I was running the marketing for a massive range for software products designed decades ago but still being actively used by customers. These products could rightly be described as a cash-cow for the company, as they were bringing in a truly massive amount of revenue but were only taking a very small about of investment to keep them current, and almost nothing was being invested in new functionality.

Just because these products were generating a very healthy revenue didn’t been it couldn’t be improved. In fact, the revenue was falling slightly each year, but since the revenue was in the billions, even a small drop was very significant.

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Inside Steve’s Brain described at a very high level some of the processes Apple used to truly understand the customer experience, and it dawned on me that the issues that Apple solved with music, had potentially a lot of synergy to what my market was seeing. Prior to the ipod and iTunes ecosystem the process of acquiring, standardizing, storing, accessing and playing music was complex requiring many disparate tools to be used to build a personal system. It took expertise and effort. Legacy computing tools formed a similar environment.

We decided to call the same agency that Apple had used to understand the music environment. They were not cheap so we decided to start by asking them to look at one specific technical role in the way our market used our products. They agreed to do it, and performed what they called “a deep immersion” which was marketing speak for sitting behind a user for several days and look at what they actually did, taking notes and creating a detailed report.

What they found was shocking. While we had thought we offered a complete solution, what we found was that our tool set had to be combined with a little black book of knowledge that each user built, along with post-it notes taking up every inch of the bezel of their monitors. The amount of manual steps they had to take was incredible.

Of course our development team tried to push back and say that this was normal, and actually for our developers this was normal. But it showed that we could do a lot more to create a better user experience. The passion from development was intense, they truly thought that “dumbing down” the product would annoy the customers, and believed that users saw the manual steps and complexity of our solution as job security.

It took a lot of effort to convince the development team that change was going to happen, and frankly some of the development team refused and resigned.

When we shared the idea with the user base, the feedback was also mixed. Some users did feel (just as the developers) that dumbing down the solution was not in their interests. But many other users were very excited by what we proposed, seeing it as a huge improvement and a way of raising their jobs, as they could now take on more new things. It was these higher performers that we focused on, who actually were in the majority.

What we were able to do, was start a true conversation with our market about how to dramatically improve products. And this turned our company from one of the crowd to a thought leader, and innovator.

We did make some dramatic improvements in the market, ones that drove the whole market to invest and brought new customers to us, and kept existing customers delighted.

It took a lot of people to get on board before we were able to make a change, but the result was truly amazing. We were able to take a moribund market segment with customers who felt ignored and breath a new life into it. The results were increased revenue, new customers, greater retention and the respect of some of the biggest companies in the world.

From a marketing perspective, we were able to increase our visibility, awareness, consideration and demand generation. From a product perspective we were able to ignite the innovative flair of the whole development organization and from a sales perspective, we were able to help the whole sales team achieve and exceed their targets for multiple years.

It didn’t just happen with a book, but the book helped create the spark that started the process.

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