5 Ways To Apply 'Agile' To Customer Relationships - InformationWeek

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IT Leadership // Enterprise Agility
Commentary
11/25/2014
08:36 AM
Frédéric Lepied and Alexis Monville
Frédéric Lepied and Alexis Monville
Commentary
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5 Ways To Apply 'Agile' To Customer Relationships

Agile development strategies improve internal productivity, but you also need to use them outside the company walls with customers.

Launching Agile strategies at your company involves a lot of behind-the-scenes work to be successful. The first step is to make sure you have the right people and processes in place to set the stage for the Agile culture you want to create.

If you're at the beginning of this process, be sure to check out our article 6 Ways to Create an Agile Culture, which outlines the steps we've taken to create an environment ripe for nimble software development.

But employee hiring, training, and integration are just parts of the Agile equation. How you engage with customers and execute on your Agile vision is what really sets you apart. Once you move a customer from a prospect to a signed client, the temptation is to jump right in to what was promised during the sales process. However, move too quickly, and you could be off and running in the wrong direction -- wasting technical resources, spurring unproductive development cycles, and frustrating the customer you worked so hard to land.

As Abraham Lincoln once said, "Give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe." In other words, it's all about the preparation -- particularly when it comes to the development of new products and services.

[DevOps and pit crews both rely on speedy teamwork, but that's not the only similarity. Read How DevOps Is Like A Formula 1 Pit Crew]

A study by McKinsey & Co. and the University of Oxford of 5,400 large-scale IT projects (with budgets greater than $15 million) revealed that 56% delivered less value than predicted. We believe it typically boils down to what you do (or don't do) before a strategic IT undertaking that will make or break the results.

When we kick off customer engagements (eNovance is an OpenStack integrator recently acquired by Red Hat), we've found that our contacts often thought the project was a straightforward IT infrastructure development. However, we knew the end result could be so much more -- dramatically changing the customer's business and future development efforts, if done correctly. So we decided to make a fundamental change in how we work with customers out of the gate.

The first step for our new customers is to partake in what we call an Assessment Workshop. Over the course of two days, we bring together all of the key stakeholders -- including those responsible for the customer's network, storage, computing, development, and operations, as well as the people who own the project from a business and technical perspective -- to ensure we have a common understanding of what's involved and where we're headed. The goal is to walk away with the information and buy-in needed to develop a cost-effective cloud architecture that's customized to a tee. To make that happen, we focus on five key activities:

1. Align the vision: An Agile development project built on unrealistic expectations will fail. It's critical to create cooperation among all of the players, with agreement on expected costs, timing, product performance, and functionality. Landing on a common understanding is critical, even if it requires several feedback loops.

2. Build a deep understanding of the technical and business requirements: Technical roadblocks can quickly derail a project, adding months to development time. Remember to identify current customer resources and expertise, as you don't want to reinvent the wheel, but you also don't want to be caught off guard by a lack of tools.

3. Identify and prioritize use cases: This sounds obvious but is often overlooked. All participants should share one to two product use cases

Alexis Monville is Chief Agility Officer of eNovance (now part of Red Hat), a major contributor to the Openstack code and an active player in the open cloud ecosystem. Alexis is charged with creating and nurturing an agile culture that pervades the whole organization.

Frédéric Lepied is Vice President of Software Engineering at eNovance (now part of Red Hat). He has been involved with the open-source movement since 1996. At eNovance, his team is contributing to OpenStack and responsible for building eNovance's ... View Full Bio
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batye
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batye,
User Rank: Ninja
12/1/2014 | 1:46:29 AM
Re: Assessment has always been a good irst step
this days proper assesment is a must... or have idea/know your customers needs/req...
yalanand
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yalanand,
User Rank: Ninja
11/29/2014 | 3:10:41 AM
Re: Assessment has always been a good irst step
@kstaron: Do you think that the customer relationships depend upon how much assessment you do about your potential customers?
yalanand
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yalanand,
User Rank: Ninja
11/29/2014 | 3:05:43 AM
Re: 5 Ways To Apply 'Agile' To Customer Relationship
"I think relationship management is very much contingent upon the amount of focus you give on your existing customers and what do you do to make them continue feeling special."

@tzubair: I agree with you. Understanding customer liking patterns and making necessary regulations to please the customers yields in a long term trust from the customers. That is the rule to market success.
tzubair
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tzubair,
User Rank: Ninja
11/27/2014 | 12:16:09 PM
Re: 5 Ways To Apply 'Agile' To Customer Relationship
"You may not be able to get the one-on-one relationship with your customer that you could in years gone by, but you can easily retain and manage a complex relationship and set of needs in a way that makes it feel like one, if you put in a little extra work."

@zerox203: I think relationship management is very much contingent upon the amount of focus you give on your existing customers and what do you do to make them continue feeling special. A lot of companies actually pay very little attention to their existing customers and focus more on the acquisition of new ones. They end up with very high churn rates whereas the existing customers are far more profitable at times.

 
tzubair
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tzubair,
User Rank: Ninja
11/27/2014 | 11:52:34 AM
Customer buy-in
I think agility in customer relationships does prove to be handy in ensuring that the entire system gets developed through an agile model. The best part about it is how the customer buy-in is being achieved at the initial stages. In most IT projects, the end users get to know about the system at the very end after everything has been done. Getting a buy-in at that stage takes much more time and takes away the agility from the project. A buy-in at the initial stages does make a lot of difference.
zerox203
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zerox203,
User Rank: Ninja
11/26/2014 | 12:55:33 PM
Re: 5 Ways To Apply 'Agile' To Customer Relationship
I definitely want to echo what others are saying about this approach - it may seem like an awful lot of work upfront and some of these points may seem a bit basic (having buy-in from stakeholders is better than not having it), but an ounce of prevention is really worth a pound of cure. Moreover, acquiring that ounce is a bit of a lost art in modern business - it's precisely thanks to all the technology at our fingertips, though, that we can manage these relationships more effectively, quickly and easily. You may not be able to get the one-on-one relationship with your customer that you could in years gone by, but you can easily retain and manage a complex relationship and set of needs in a way that makes it feel like one, if you put in a little extra work.

All that said, I wonder how useful this specific approach will be for a large variety of businesses. What if you have a large variety of smaller customers with disparate needs? What if you really are just selling infrastructure or something else from a short list of predefined packages? Your customer may not be looking for you to be this transformative to their business, and that's part of meeting their needs, too. I was expecting more suggestions on how to apply agile methodology internally (at your company) in your customer relationship management process to make for a more seamless experience for the customer, rather than how to embark on an agile journey together with your customer (as this seems more situational). Still some very good insight in here, though.
kstaron
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kstaron,
User Rank: Ninja
11/26/2014 | 9:15:58 AM
Assessment has always been a good irst step
I've used something similar in this when writing training materials. The very first step is assessment. You have to know where the goal is for training and where the people are at that will be taking the course. You write a different course for experts in their field than those just starting out. Assessment is handy to start with no matter what business you are in. Know your customers and know what they need so you can get them the right product.
alexismonville
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alexismonville,
User Rank: Apprentice
11/25/2014 | 2:57:29 PM
Re: No BS
Thanks for your feedback!
Shane M. O'Neill
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Shane M. O'Neill,
User Rank: Author
11/25/2014 | 1:22:55 PM
No BS
I love the no-nonsense nature of this approach. Mandatory in-person workshops with clear rules and clear goals, and measured results. 
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