Someone recently asked me which customers I enjoy working with the most. As I crafted my response, I chuckled, because my favorite customer is often the most difficult and demanding. They are always asking us to do more, to push our product beyond its capabilities and they keep me thinking about how we can exceed their expectations well beyond the classic work day. I call them our “lightning customers.” They are a partner who is, in many respects, more capable, has higher expectations of your team or your product than you do and isn’t afraid to share their opinions, their pain points and their insights. Lightning customers push us to problem solve, think outside the box and stress test our biggest ideas.
The mission of my team is to enable millions of people to work the way they choose. We believe that when we use the tools that make our lives easier, work gets better. The energy our most engaged customers put into providing feedback on their experiences helps us to improve the business, and no one does this better than a lightning customer.
But a lightning customer is just that -- one that doesn’t strike often, packs a ton of energy, and can burn. But they introduce a huge opportunity if you can harness their energy. So, how can you tell the difference between an individual or company that is just difficult and a true lightning customer? There are three questions I ask when I sense I’m working with one:
1. How wide is the problem?
Is their problem unique to them, or do other customers share it? If you listen to what your customers are asking for, you’ll avoid the common misstep of building a product without a market. The last thing you want to be is the “New Coke.” For example, when users on Twitter started using hashtags to create easily searchable terms, Twitter developers caught on and made them a core feature by hyperlinking those hashtags. Now we couldn’t even imagine Twitter without them. If multiple customers are asking for the same thing, this is definitely an opportunity to innovate.
2. Is it a future problem?
If other customers don’t currently share this problem, will they in the future? It’s important to ask yourself whether it’s possible that this customer is pointing out a problem or need that other customers will eventually have. I experienced this firsthand when my team was responsible for helping one of the largest online streaming companies move all of their company documents to store on Drive -- about 35 terabytes of data. Because of the sheer volume, this truly stress tested our system. Rather than complain and wait for us to figure it out, this lightning customer worked with us closely to build new features and maximize the potential of Drive. While they may have been the first company to need so much capacity, it turned out they weren’t alone. As our enterprise business grew and more large companies started working with us, we found the features we built for this one customer were necessary for many of our larger customers with terabytes of data.
3. Will your customer become a partner?
Is the customer willing to be an active partner in the project? The ultimate defining characteristic of a lightning customer is their willingness to work with you. If the problem they are asking you to solve will require a heavy lift, ask them, “Are you willing to work with us on this?” Tell them exactly what you’re going to need from them, and be honest. To properly execute on a lighting customer project, you may need to assemble a dedicated team and pool resources that were previously allocated elsewhere. If you’re going to invest that much on your end, the customer needs to be willing to meet you halfway. If they need to assign their own team to the project as well, tell them. If executive leadership needs to make final decisions, ask them if the executives are just as invested as the team who is doing the bulk of the work. The last thing you want is for everyone to hustle on a project only to get rejected once it’s brought to the decision-makers.
Once you engage and commit to partnering with a lightning customer, it’s important to get everyone who will be working closely with them invested as well. Invite your customer to talk to the team, or better still, visit their offices and see their pain points and needs first hand -- don’t just file a bug. Hold a brainstorming session with the customer and ask them to let you know what they need in their own words. Having a direct connection to customers is also extremely energizing and motivating for the folks who will have to make the magic happen by designing, coding or supporting this customer.