Photo: Hindustan Times
Photo: Hindustan Times

Digital is changing client expectations

What do customers want today, and how do we organize ourselves to best serve them?

As today’s software-driven businesses seek the pot of gold promised by digital transformation, I find more of our customers coming to us with a high-level business goal in mind and expecting us, experts in digital business, to help them figure out how to realize these goals through the magic of code and data.

This behaviour is significantly different from the way things were even a few years ago; they would have crisp visions of what they were trying to build—a new enterprise resource planning workflow—and what they needed from us—for example, 50 developers knowledgeable in business software SAP.

This change in expectations from what customers need to what they want spans industries. I’ve seen it in media companies, financial services firms, healthcare provider organizations and retailers, and it does not seem to matter whether they are in the business of software, in which geographies they operate, or whether they are business-to-business or business-to-consumer companies.

All of which got me thinking: What do customers want today, and how do we organize ourselves to best serve them?

First and foremost, customers want business success. They usually express this in well-understood business terms. For example, greater wallet share of current customers, access to a new market segment and greater customer delight. They are often not familiar with the underlying digital technologies. They look to us—the technology experts—to guide them from their high-level business ambitions to a nuts-and-bolts implementation that maximizes benefits, manages risk and comes at a reasonable price.

They expect us to understand their businesses at a deep level. A chief information officer once told me: “I expect you to bring me a solution to my business problem before I am even aware of the problem." From my perspective, this requires us to be organized in a manner where we are bilingually fluent in business-speak and techno-geek. The roles of business analyst and technical architect are all too often expected and realized these days within a single individual.

Second, customers want assurance. They expect the project to be delivered on time and within budget. They want to know that the solution won’t fail unexpectedly on the peak shopping day of the year and make them lose business. In light of multiple high-profile data breaches, they want to be confident that they won’t be subject to a similar fate, with all of the attendant costs, disruption and publicity.

Given that today’s enterprise solutions are inherently large-scale distributed systems, what this means for us is that we pay close attention from day one to non-functional requirements such as security, reliability, availability and serviceability; that we handle for load fluctuations in a cost-effective manner through cloud deployment; that we future-proof the design through modular design; and that we use agile development methodologies to deliver measurable quanta of business value at every code drop.

Third, customers want freedom: either in the sense of mobility, or in the sense of choice. In our current era of mobility, we expect services to be available everywhere and all the time (4G Wi-Fi has been available at the summit of Mount Everest since 2013), and expect a consistent user experience across multiple devices. Given the ever-increasing pace of technological change, we are keen to avoid vendor lock-in.

From my vantage point, this means investing in mobility technologies, user experience and design thinking; leveraging free and open source software where appropriate; and using APIs (application programming interfaces) to prolong the useful life of the user’s data.

Finally, customers want things to be easy and simple. Commoditization of IT makes us demand that enterprise software be as easy to use as the consumer apps on our smartphones. Simplicity is highly aspirational and is often incredibly difficult to accomplish in practice: to quote author and US diplomat Clare Boothe Luce, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication."

Techniques such as agile development can help here, but often it takes an exceptional vision supported by relentless focus on execution details to successfully hide incredible complexity behind a veneer of utter simplicity.

Interestingly enough, these four wants make for a good mnemonic: SAFE or success, assurance, freedom and ease.

Punditry on such topics, of course, needs to be taken with a sizeable grain of salt. Henry Ford famously said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses." Certainly, if you can disrupt the market—whether with a Model T, a Model S, an iPod, or something else—break all the rules.

If not, it’s probably not a bad strategy to play it SAFE.

Siddhartha Chatterjee is chief technology officer at software services firm Persistent Systems Ltd.

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