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Guided by voicesIn the early stages of large-scale IT outsourcing, when many of the governance processes and contractual mechanisms that we now take for granted did not exist, we regularly had to make judgment calls on how to resolve unanticipated and apparently precedent-setting commercial issues. In these circumstances, I would always try to heed the sage advice of an influential mentor of mine. He would counsel me, “The customers aren’t always right, but they are always the only source of money.” Strikingly simple but very meaningful guidance, which, for the most part, has stood me well for the past 20 years or so.

Recently we have also applied this mindset to bring clarity and insight to our long-term strategic plan at Vitalyst. Like all good strategic planning processes, we had gathered a wide range of inputs by observing market trends and other company results, seeking advice from our board of directors, and poring over the latest findings from analysts, such as Gartner. (We are closely following their work on Bimodal IT, as covered in several of our earlier blogs.)

From this, we have established some overall goals to expand our range of services and find new ways to bring value from our deep knowledge of our customers’ software and its usage in their environments.

However, until recently we were missing something—the customer input. It’s not that we don’t talk with our customers, we do, and on a regular basis.  But those conversations tend to focus on operational matters and only occasionally extend to a more strategic dialogue. This is not unusual in our industry, as agendas are inevitably crowded with urgent, tangible, resolvable issues. ”Strategy” is for another group, another day, another world.

The same mentor would also tell me, “There’s no such thing as strategy, only big tactics.”  I understand his point but do not necessarily agree. Also, in some companies, the strategic planning process itself—highly focused upon financial evaluation and historical trend analysis, or a prosaic annual ritual of internal “lobbying” for budget and resources—precludes customer input in the belief that the strategy can determine the market and the customers’ behavior. While this approach might be appropriate for some exceptional cases (perhaps Steve Jobs and iTunes come to mind), it’s always risky and a little naïve to drink your own Kool-Aid.

Determined not to fall into this trap, we decided that we had to take specific action to gather this intelligence, rather than rely on our regular dialogues. After considering our options, we also decided that a full Voice of Customer (VOC) market research study was appropriate. We engaged Strategex Inc., a Chicago-based research and consulting firm, to carry it out.

Strategex has just completed its work and provided us the findings. The firm has taken input from 158 people, representing 147 different organizations. The respondents included current customers (56%), former customers (35%) and prospects (9%). We thank those who responded for their time and insights. We are very pleased with the results, both in terms of the largely positive feedback on our current performance and, perhaps more importantly, the clear priorities that have emerged for our strategy.

Looking at our current performance, a clear categorization emerges. We are viewed as a highly capable, knowledgeable “educator”—one who excels at identifying and solving users’ problems, as well as one who strengthens users’ proficiency and confidence through our software coaching and training services. Our on-shore, 24/7 and on-demand operating model is also widely seen as a strength. Our managed help desk services are not as well known, but highly valued by those who use them.

Looking forward, our customers have told us of their new technology initiatives and the emerging trends that will determine the nature of our market in the next few years. In technology, migrations to Windows 10, Office 2016 and Office 365 dominate the short-term plans, while needs in mobility, security and data/analytics will increase over the medium-term.  The key emerging trends that present opportunities (or threats) for us include new classes of digital workplace technologies, a growing user preference for self-service IT support, and the “shift-left” approach applied to support, analyzing data, anticipating user needs and taking proactive action.

As we expected, the feedback tells us that we have things to work upon. We’ll review this information in depth and decide how to respond. We’ll build upon our strengths, make improvements where appropriate, and, perhaps most importantly, we’ll ensure that we position ourselves at the center of these emerging trends—“skating to where the puck is going to be”—to borrow the famous Wayne Gretzky phrase. We’ll incorporate all of this into our strategic plan.

In my next blog, I will share an update on our decisions and outline our plans for 2016 and beyond.

 

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