The “Voice” of the Customer

A few months after the story in my last post, “The Need for a Process”, my customer, the Lt. Colonel, arranged a meeting where he brought some of his soldiers to talk about what functions and features they wanted added or changed in the current software. The software was not used on the front-line. It was back-line communications software. The hardware consisted of a PDP-11 which captured the feeds/signals and a larger VAX/VMS system to analyze and process the results.

One young Army guy got up to talk about the list of change requests and why they were needed. He listed as a top priority changing the queuing algorithm. Humm. It seemed to me that there were a lot of other items on the list that deserved more attention.

“Let me give an example,” said the Army guy.

“One day we were monitoring communications when all of the front-line systems were attacked. Everything went off-line. The PDP-11 also went down. We brought it back on-line and it started processing messages from the queue.” (This was Desert Storm, remember.)

“A half-hour later it got to the last message that had been posted on the queue. ‘Incoming SKUD!’ It would have been really nice”, he said, pausing for the irony to sink in, “if that had been the first message we received instead of a half-hour later.”

Incoming SKUD? Ah, input received. While the system wasn’t designed for the front-line it had to fill the role when front-line systems went down. Wow. OK then. Priority 1! Change the queuing algorithm!

Sometimes it isn’t clear why clients would want changes and enhancements. It certainly helps to understand your customer!

The Best Reward

While I worked with the Lt. Colonel, I tried hard to understand things from his perspective. It made sense how upset he was with our “perceived” software coverup when one realized he was on his way the next day with the software to Desert Storm and his soldiers depended on our software. That’s a lot of pressure.

A few years later I accepted a job to ASK/Ingres, leaving Ford Aerospace after almost 20 years. The Lt. Colonel was in town for a review meeting and was told that I had resigned. Before our meeting, he caught me in the hall.

One of the initial tasks on his project before I’d come on-board was to convert the software from the Ingres database to Oracle. He stopped me in the hall to say he was glad we had a chance to work together and said “Maybe we went the wrong way” (meaning from Ingres to Oracle instead of visa versa since I had selected to work at Ingres). Having this stalwart army customer believe in my decisions was one of the best indications that I had been hearing the “Voice of the Customer”.

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