Net-zero implementation may be a game-changer for you.
“Change is hard, but change is good.” — Henry Rollins
No one enjoys the pain of change. Change is hard. Yet we continue to think our customers won’t mind changing to use our products. This attitude is less prevalent in the B2C world as they are hyper-aware of and interested in addressing the pain of change. In the B2B hemisphere, change goes hand and hand with new products. But should it?
B2B product leaders, I am calling you out on the dreaded implementation phase. Your sales team knows implementation is painful and is eager to disappear once the deal closes. They hand the contract off to the customer success team before the ink dries. So why do we, as product leaders, continue to ignore what happens between contract and production use? Shouldn’t implementation be part of our product experience? Think hard, when was the last time you had a great implementation experience?
My first encounter with implementation begins many years ago on a warm summer day in a typical suburban office in New Jersey — True story. Early in my career, I led the implementation of a supply chain analytics module from SAP (enterprise resource planning software). Those three letters, SAP, are enough to cause most IT shops to cringe in agony, and SAP sure left similar, lasting impression on me. I still clearly remember the first timeline presented, 12 months if all went smoothly. What!? The analytics module sat on top of a software platform we already used. I was young and naïve, but still, we could dream up and launch products faster in our multinational consumer health business.
Then my eyes glazed over. I started to daydream as they went through the details only to abruptly snap back to reality. I was in for an enormous challenge. Why did it have to be this hard? Why couldn’t SAP make it as easy as flipping a switch? Boom, the module is right in your workflow and is so intuitive that it requires no training. That’s taking a one-star implementation experience to a five-star experience. Or what I like to call net-zero implementation.
Fast forward a decade — I lead an enterprise software company in the healthcare space. I finally have a chance to do something about dreaded implementation experiences. What did I do? What every great consultant does — I got the leadership team together in front of a whiteboard. We mapped out every step, point of friction, place our customer might want to give up, and point of potential regret. Then, with our journey in hand, we set off to make implementation an enjoyable experience.
And we started where every great product experience should start — with user research to test our hypothesis. Customer interviews. Friction analysis. What if’s. I think you get the point. We engaged our customers and users to tell us how to make implementation more enjoyable.
The answer — don’t make us change. Net-zero implementation. The perfect implementation is no implementation at all.
Obvious but not so obvious at the same time. While most B2B companies conduct extensive user research, map journeys, remove steps, and create an engaging experience for their product, they forget that using the product in production isn’t their customer’s first experience. It’s implementation. They don’t recognize that implementation is a critical part of their product, not an activity managed by a separate team.
Ok, great story. But is net-zero implementation even possible? In many cases, yes. And even if it isn’t, you can get close. How? Treating implementation as your customer’s first impression and interaction with your product. And then investing in user research, experience design, friction analysis, and managing implementation as part of the product.
For the software company I was leading, when we went back to the drawing board and rethought our implementation journey, it came down to five impactful changes.
- Build our product around and into the user’s workflow. The most significant change we made was redesigning the product, so implementation had the smallest footprint on our customers. In our case, our customers used our product in three ways — file extracts, reports, and an interactive dashboard. Simple changes included designing the extract to be in their format eliminating transformation requirements, sending reports formatted in the order they expected to use them in their process, and configuring the dashboard to be a link in the relevant workflow as opposed to a separate site. These changes and a list of many more together reduced the burden of change during implementation.
- Eliminate all IT changes required. We imagined all the possible barriers and systematically eliminated them. A big one was no new accounts. SSO instead. SSO wasn’t as prevalent then as it is today in large enterprises. No firewall changes and configuration. No need for the client to configure a landing zone for files. Trust me; the list was long.
- Come with a plan ready-made for them. Implementation typically starts with a generic plan you have to customize with your client. Instead, do as much before to tailor the project and make it seem small in effort and duration. Provide examples of how other clients worked through each of the steps.
- Create every user interaction point to be intuitive. Based on the friction analysis, we found each point that left users scratching their heads during implementation and worked to eliminate them. Use their language, not ours. Use industry standards, not those we dream up. Without going into endless detail, the point is to do all you can to reduce and eliminate the need for training.
- Be their change agent. We found our customer’s implementation team did not want to and did not have the energy to be change agents. So we assigned one to help them lead discussions about the new product, the implementation process, our joint goal of a net-zero implementation, and demo how small the impact would be on the user.
Then we thought about changes to how our implementation team operates.
- Empathize with the customer’s implementation team. DO NOT JUMP RIGHT INTO PLANNING. Look at the implementation team as a critical user. Remember that while you may be excited about implementation, they are not. The buyer is often not the implementor and is often not the user. The implementation team on the customer side stands between the buyer’s expectations and the user’s gain. Start the conversation early, get to know them, build a relationship, share stories of implementation glory with other clients, and above all, reassure them it won’t be as hard as they think.
- Understand how their company works, their processes with the current product, and their view on friction points. Hopefully, at this point, you should have eliminated as much friction as possible in your revised implementation journey. However, there will still be things to address that are unique to each company. Partner with the implementation team, map their implementation and discuss eliminating unique friction points. This mapping exercise, along with empathy, will help calm their fears.
- Build a joint team that is in it together, not throwing things back and forth. You need to establish a one-team mindset. There is no us vs. them — no pointing fingers and blame. Failure is everyone’s fault. If the implementation is trending negative, get in and help.
- Make them the hero in their company to the executive sponsor and buyer. Help them look as good as possible — implement before asked, under budget with great feedback from their colleagues and users. Help them tell the story about how amazing things are going.
The result? We took a roughly 26-week implementation down to a 4-week implementation with most of the work on us (e.g., configuring SSO on our side). And while we didn’t achieve net-zero, we came close. We also significantly increased client satisfaction with our implementation team.
So as you consider the concept of net-zero and changes to your implementation journey, remember you can always improve the experience. Use the framework highlighted in this post as a guide. Make implementation part of your product and the best first impression possible. Treat the implementation teams as users you want to delight.
Net-zero implementation = happy customers = revenue growth by referrals and reputation.