Any customer facing organization deals with questions, asks and demands coming from customers. Some of them are easy to answer and some of them require investments of time and resources.
How can you prioritize them properly?
In this article I will show you how to use Critical Thinking framework to make your decision making process more efficient. I’ll share with you common mistakes in prioritization and how to avoid them.
Moreover, in many mid and large size enterprises there are two different organizations who are responsible for process of receiving customer requests and prioritizing them.
But how the process of prioritization works? Obviously, some thinking is involved here. But what impacts the thinking? What kind of techniques can we apply to do it more efficiently?
For this series of articles I’m going to use “classical” situation in examples:
- Account team (Account Manager or Solution Architect) receives request from customer and forwards it to Product Management organization (Product Manager)
- Product Management organization asks clarification questions and Account team collects customer’s responses
- Product Management organization comes to some decisions, does prioritization and assess risks
This series will be split into three parts:
- Part 1. Clarity – how to understand a request and get needed context
- Part 2. Conclusions – how to build a premise and come to conclusions
- Part 3. Decisions – how to do prioritization and risk assessment
What is Critical Thinking?
Our brain is constantly in the process of thinking even if we are not conscious about it. The amount of information we receive per second is so huge that our brain should use special methods not to be overwhelmed – it discards some pieces of information and does a lot of patterns recognition. In short, it runs in automatic mode. It is extremely valuable feature that comes by-design and very useful in our daily life. I don’t need to be aware about my breathing, brain cut the surrounding noise when I’m concentrating and if one day a tiger will attack me on a street my brain will jump to conclusion to run very fast.
However, this mode of brain operation has some drawbacks – brain does not tell me when and what it discards and automatic conclusions may be wrong. So, when it comes to complex problem solving it is better to employ another framework – critical thinking.
Critical thinking is a purposeful process of getting clarity, collecting facts, making assumptions and coming to conclusions.
Critical thinking is when you are aware of biases, emotions and previous experience which impact your thinking.
Critical thinking is manual not automatic, e.g. requires conscious efforts. And the last, critical thinking is conducted within three steps framework.
Critical Thinking Framework
Those three steps are:
- Clarity. You get clear on the actual issue
- Conclusions. You create a solution for the issue
- Decisions. You take an action on the issue
In the context of this article Decision is a prioritized list of customers’ requests that should be fulfilled with limited amount of resources.
It does look like an obvious process, but we don’t do it much. How often did you face situation like below?
Customer to account team: “I want you to compare price of your product with competitor X. I need this information next week.”
Account team to Product management: “Customer demands to provide price comparison for competitor X. Please, provide this information ASAP”
Product management to account team: “Please, use Public Pricing to do such comparison”.
The problem with this situation – everybody process request in automatic mode and nobody gets clear on why customer is asking this question.
That’s why prioritization begins with…
Clarity is the most important step of critical thinking process. Everyone has at least one example from professional career when lack of clarity significantly complicated decision making process or led to wrong results.
If clarity so important, how come we skip this step and jump to conclusions? One of the explanations is that we tend to interpret customers requests or any other incoming information based on memories and previous experience (“Been there, done that”). It is natural process for our brain to try to process incoming information in automatic mode and take a shortcut. So, the first step to get clarity is to resist this process and start thinking.
Clarity in the context of customers’ requests is:
- Get clear what is the ask/request
- Clarify who is a requestor and who is originator of the request?
- Find an actual root cause of the request
- Understand what will happen if request will be fulfilled or if will not
Let’s try to inspect example of customer request from previous chapter. We start from getting clear on meaning of words:
“I want you to compare price of your product with competitor X. I need this information next week.”
- Who is “I” here? Is it individual or group of people?
- What kind of price are we talking about here? Public pricing or with special discount rate?
- Is it “need” or “want”?
It is better to clarify any term which is unclear or can have several meanings. The world of a person who send us this request can be totally different from our world or we can use different terminology.
Next tool in our belt is powerful question “Why?”.
Unfortunately, “Why?” can be interpreted negatively and as push back on the request, so better to explain that it is just an instrument to collect details and get additional context of the request.
The well known rule of Five Whys is applicable here as well – sometimes the real answer can be discovered underneath multiple layers.
What can we get from asking Why?
- To understand what request IS and what it IS NOT. Why customer is asking about it now? Why it is important? Why he is asking about competitor X? Customer asks us to do This, but this is just what we see, there is always That – the real need behind request or question.
- Answer “I don’t know” is very important one. First, it allows to understand how much do we know, find gaps in our knowledge and ask another question “Who might know?” or “How can we find out?” Second, it gives opportunity to start building assumptions “If we don’t know, what assumptions can we take?“
- The double because—a because with two exclamation points. It’s a because you can’t reasonably do anything about. Something that beyond our abilities to influence.
The next step is to gather understanding about importance with question “So What?”
Yes, “So What?” may sound provocative but it can be great eyes opener. It helps to see why the request is important, how it is relevant for customer and what are consequences of fulfilling or not fulfilling the request.
Let’s go back to our example with a feature request:
“Customer wants us to provide feature XYZ and it should be before Christmas?”
“They are going to launch a new service and feature XYZ has significant impact on it.”
“So What” opens a conversation about what is going to happen if the feature XYZ will not be available before Christmas? What impact it will have on the customer? Are there alternatives for feature XYZ? And etc.
It also works perfectly for analyzing any data and/or reports. What does actually a data means for customer, team or project? What impact a report has on roadmap or strategy?
You can ask “So What?” even about yourself. What is my presence gives to the company/family/universe? Why am I important?
Both “Why?” and “So What?” questions provide insight about …
Understanding of underlying need of the request is crucial to be sure that we are trying to solve real customer problem.
It is quite often that we receive many requests from different parts of customer’s organization and not all of them have any necessity behind them.
The need itself can have different severity levels – something can be business critical, something can be desirable but not mandatory. The need can have different impact on the organizational level as well – how may departments or people are waiting for feature XYZ?
In order to do any prioritization, we need to get such information prior prioritization itself. The golden rule is – If everything is priority, nothing is priority.
Imagine the following scenario. After delivering feature XYZ, customer comes back and say: “And also, we would like to see metrics for feature XYZ in performance dashboard.”
If we would have this information from the beginning, we would include metrics for performance dashboard into feature scope and development.
Anticipatory thinking is required to understand what else is related to request, what customer may ask next, after we done with feature XYZ. This allows us to align our schedule with logical next steps/requests from customer side.
What is next? What is after that? Those questions are inspiring innovation as they give opportunity to think what is around the corner. Every team in organization is busy with day to day tasks, so conscious effort is required to stop and analyze what is the next step and the step after it and so on.
I’m not aware about psychological explanation for this phenomena, but I found that people very rarely provide full information in one step. Normally, you need to probe people two-three times before they reach the bottom of a bucket. And here question “What Else?” is irreplaceable.
It allows to discover new angles of the same topic – “What else you can get from feature XYZ?”, “What else can cause this?”. Perfect way to extract more information.
You can add word possibly and it can inspire for new ideas – “What else possible explanation does exist?”
Especially, it is becoming important in verbal communication with customer. Any request you receive from your customer contact was discussed internally inside customer’s organization. So you, most probably, will get just a short summary with minimum context.
Probing with questions “What Else?” or “Anything Else?” you can get missing pieces.
Putting it all together
Now, let’s try to get clarity on customer request below.
“Our Big and Demanding Customer (BDC) wants us to deliver feature XYZ before Christmas”
Let’s start with following questions to get context:
- How big is our “Big Customer” ?
- The customer generates 5% of revenue in the region
- What is feature XYZ from customer’s perspective?
- We don’t know
- What does “deliver” means? Does it mean ready for private testing or GA?
- It means – ready for production deployment
- What Christmas we are talking about? Is it this year or next year?
- This year
Then we can move to “Why?” and “So What?” questions:
- Why feature XYZ is important?
- The customer is preparing for new service launch and feature XYZ is mandatory for it?
- Why it should be delivered before Christmas?
- Engineering team made a commitment to management
- So what? What is going to happen if feature XYZ will not be delivered?
- We will hurt relationships with our champions in Engineering team
- So what? Why it is a problem?
- It is a problem because the customer is one of strategic accounts in the region. We can loose upcoming RFP
Now we are able to identify need both from customer and internal view points. We also can see what is going to happen if we will not deliver feature XYZ.
Let’s try to anticipate what will happen in future with the customer.
- What is going to happen after we deliver feature XYZ?
- New service will be launched in production
- How customer’s roadmap looks like?
- There are 3 more new services are coming next quarter
- What feature the customer may request next?
- The customer is interested in feature ABC
After collecting answers above, we have minimum amount of information to transform initial request:
“Big and Demanding Customer (BDC) is in top 10 customers of the region. Our key contact in BDC is Engineering team. We are influencing upcoming RFP via our champions and key supporters in the team.
BDC is preparing new service launch before Christmas this year. Engineering team made a commitment to management to deliver on time. The new service relies on feature XYZ. We have received a request from the customer to deliver feature XYZ with production quality before Christmas.
If we are unable to deliver feature XYZ on time, we can jeopardize relationships with key Engineering stakeholders and lost RFP to a competitor.
BDC’s roadmap has additional 3 services for the next quarter. These services may potentially require feature ABC to deliver.”
It looks much better now, isn’t it? The request is ready now for next step in Critical Thinking framework – Conclusions.
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