Clearswift, Reading, Berkshire, England
PHOTOS BY MARTIN BEDDALL
From left: Andrew Wyatt and Alyn Hockey
Executives at an IT company spent months traveling the world to find out exactly what customers and competitors think of their products.
Would you travel around the world to meet your leading 200 customers? Clearswift did, and it has helped the web and email security solutions provider in Reading, Berkshire, England stay ahead of the competition.
“Unless you keep track of what your customers want and what your competitors are up to, you can go from number one in your market to number 20 just like that,” says Alyn Hockey, director of product management at Clearswift.
COO Andrew Wyatt regularly visits the company's top customers to conduct face-to-face interviews about their needs and what Clearswift can do to meet them. His team then reviews the data to find opportunities for new projects.
This relentless information gathering shapes the organization's process for choosing which projects promise the best bottom-line benefit and opportunities to beat out competitors.
CUSTOMER FEEDBACK WORLD TOUR
From September 2010 through June 2011, Mr. Wyatt and Mr. Hockey traveled the globe, sitting down with the company’s top 200 clients.
“The travel can be overwhelming,” Mr. Hockey admits, “but it helps us determine which direction we want to go with our next set of projects.”
After each trip, they compiled their notes into a vast spreadsheet with hundreds of line items defining potential features and product ideas that could be turned into projects—particularly the ideas that were repeated often. “If two or three very large customers are asking for the same thing, that holds a lot of sway,” he explains.
Once the document was compiled, the product management team used a weighting process to organize and rate each idea, looking for those that promised the most value. The rating system assessed each suggestion based on:
The travel can be overwhelming, but it helps us determine which direction we want to go with our next set of projects.
- The time and cost to build a product or feature
- The ease or difficulty of implementation
- The impact it will have for customers
- The opportunity for revenue generation
- Whether the project aligns with the broader company strategy
“When we completed this process, key ideas popped out,” Mr. Wyatt says. “It produces the most valuable ideas for our customers, and therefore, ourselves.”
The top five ideas were defined more broadly into project plans. From there, the project management team prioritized the projects and worked with the engineering group to develop more detailed business cases that included specific details about time and resources to complete the project, key milestones and delivery goals.
A SHIFT IN SOCIAL MEDIA SECURITY
Many of the ideas revolved around what Mr. Wyatt calls a “trust, but verify” corporate culture. Clearswift’s products include features that allow companies to block employees from visiting certain sites, such as social media forums, where they could potentially share sensitive data.
Much of the feedback received from customers, however, indicated that employers would rather allow employees to visit and take advantage of the sites—as long as the company could audit their use and the information shared.
“That requires a shift from an IT responsibility to a line of business management process,” Mr. Wyatt notes.
The pair also discovered that these types of features were specifically in demand in France and Australia, while the United Kingdom and the United States showed tentative interest. Companies in Japan and China were not interested. This information helped the organization determine where and when to roll out a project.
Market analysis sparked a project to develop a new software feature: When users attempt to access a protected URL, they have to click a button indicating they want to enter the site anyway. When this occurs, a program sends an automatic alert to the auditing team about the employee’s use of the site.
The project management team determined that the project to develop the feature would equal a month of one person’s working time—a relatively short amount.
Engineering team members set to work in July, using an agile project management approach. They completed three sprints— one for design, one for code and one for regression testing. The first version of the security feature was released in August for French customers, and the second version, which is being tweaked for the Australian market, was slated for release in December.
“This project was a relatively small piece of work that met the requests of several customers,” Mr. Hockey says, adding that the feature should deliver ROI within a few months.
FINDING A NICHE
Mr. Hockey also worked with a team of managers based in the United States to investigate the competition. They scoured competitors’ websites, product reviews and sales team feedback.
“The sales team is a valuable source of data,” Mr. Wyatt notes. “You get detailed information about what customers are saying your product can do, compared to competitors’ products. That is so much more useful than a glossy product brochure.”
Team members also searched for under-served niche markets that needed security software.
“We wanted to identify spaces where our technology would fit well and offer a meaningful use,” Mr. Hockey says. “When we found those spaces, we looked at the current product offering to see who else was already there.”
Through weekly conference calls over three months, the team narrowed the list to six niche markets, and further analysis revealed one—government applications for sharing files across domains—to have the most potential. The reasons were plenty: The organization currently has government clients, its technology would fit well in the market, and there were only a handful of vendors serving this particular need—many of whom were relatively new to the field.
Targeting this niche would also help the company achieve a strategic goal to broaden current product offerings.
“By branching out, we strengthen our position and validate that we are committed to expansion,” Mr. Hockey says.
Market intelligence also presented a strong business case for a new product development project to create a tool targeting military organizations. The product expansion met a strategic objective and offered additional potential revenue generation with a projected two-year ROI.
Clearswift’s current scanning technology is limited to 800-megabyte files, so the primary goal of the project was to expand its existing capability. The new version can rapidly scan files as large as 20 gigabytes to search for keywords or phrases that indicate a file is top secret and shouldn’t be shared.
The project launched in January, and the first version was ready to ship at the end of August.
To ensure developers were meeting customers’ needs, the project team had weekly conference calls with the contractor to discuss progress and challenges. In June, the company shipped its partner beta kits to collect feedback on the prototype.
Most of the suggested changes involved user interface adjustments, common with prototypes.
“Look and feel can make or break a new product,” Mr. Hockey says. “We often go through several iterations based on user feedback to get the user interface right.”
Attention to due diligence and intelligence gathering has significantly increased the odds of the project’s success, Mr. Wyatt asserts.
“It’s expensive and time-consuming, but it’s worth it,” he says. “Meeting with customers and keeping track of the competition lowers our risk and helps us understand all the use cases for our technology. You can’t get that information hiding behind a desk.”
—Sarah Fister Gale
The sales team is a valuable source of data. You get detailed information about what customers are saying your product can do, compared to competitors’ products. That is so much more useful than a glossy product brochure.
PM NETWORK DECEMBER 2011 WWW.PMI.ORG