by Chris Davis

5 lessons when creating a ‘customer zero’ program

Sep 24, 2020
InnovationSoftware DevelopmentTechnology Industry

Technology organizations must invest in a “customer zero” program to drive internal innovation, improve quality, and demonstrate they believe in their own products and services.

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The source of competitive advantage for a leading technology company is its ability to rapidly develop, sell, and deploy innovative products, services, and solutions. Without this innovation engine, a strong market position can rapidly evaporate as customers migrate to newer, cheaper, or more fit-for-purpose alternatives.

To stave off this existential threat, leading B2B tech companies prioritize a “customer zero” or “dog food” program as a central thread from product development through customer success and support.

The purpose of a customer zero program is to be the first and best customer of one’s own products, services, and/or solutions in order to accelerate product innovation and enhance go-to-market capabilities, customer stickiness, and market insight.

A best-in-class customer zero program’s charter will comprise of both internally focused objectives as well as an external-market orientation.

Internally, a customer zero program will work across product lines to be a:

  1. Product design and innovation partner
  2. Alpha & beta early adopter
  3. Deployment consultant
  4. Customer success consiglieri
  5. Source of customer intelligence & co-innovation

Externally, a customer zero program will super-charge sales motions and customer success enablement by:

  1. Designing an operating model across the company’s partner/vendor ecosystem
  2. Advising on in-production architecture and engineering
  3. Change management and training best practices
  4. Ongoing deployment lessons learned across new product/feature rollouts, adaptation to new regulations, or integration with other technologies
  5. Illustrating how the company quantifies the benefit realized from its own products

Enterprise customers expect that tech companies’ offerings are high quality, valuable, and scalable. With this dual internal and external remit, a CIO must optimize the balance of accelerating the velocity of high-credibility feedback cycles, while managing and mitigating the operational risk introduced by new offering evaluation and validation. A typical pattern is for a customer zero program to be structured into two operating modes, with appropriate decision criteria: one model that is anchored in testing new offerings in controlled, but credible environments; and another that is intended to demonstrate scale, stability, and mission criticality. The nature of the tech company’s products will dictate the criteria for each model (i.e., a product that automates website personalization may have higher production-ready risk tolerance than one publishing financial results to Wall Street).

Like all investments, when establishing a customer zero program, CIOs should define clear success measures that are shared with partners in product development, sales, professional services, customer success, and customer support. IT cannot be successful if it is brought in for feedback two weeks before a product launch, or if it is only responsible for running the product in production. End-to-end partnership across design, deployment, and operations is critical to be credible with prospects and customers.

When appropriately funded and mobilized, a world-class customer zero program will increase the number of offerings evaluated per quarter, reduce the number of defects deployed to customers, deepen customer engagement satisfaction, reduce customer support tickets, and ultimately improve a company’s positioning to sell holistic, sticky solutions to an enterprise market.