Looking for the plus-three-sigma customer

A reference in Marion’s blog sent me off to a fascinating piece by James Governor: Why Sun Software Licensing is Like a Hermann Miller Chair. He starts with the counter-intuitive fact that some customers are reported as saying that our flat-rate pricing for JES is “confusing”. Governor makes the point that the confusion comes not the pricing model but from its unfamiliarity. He cites Malcom Gladwell, who argues in his new book, Blink, “that it’s a mistake to rely on the first impressions of customers who are inherently biased against the unfamiliar” and that “focus groups hold back, rather than encourage innovation.”

Like Governor and Gladwell, I’m skeptical about the use of focus groups in the early stages of developing radical product and business concepts; I see more use for them in refining and evolving well-defined products. Rather than focus groups, I prefer the “voice of the customer” approach: standardized, semi-scripted interviews with an opportunity for open-ended responses. In addition to supporting the usual statistical analysis, VoC encourages what I call “the plus-three-sigma customers” to speak their minds. These are the folks who are out ahead of all the other customers – and usually ahead of us too! They’re the ones who aren’t confused by the unfamiliar, and who tend to be impatient with groupthink. To return to Governor’s piece, they’re the folks who would grab that ugly Aeron chair and and see at once how to build their workspace around it. They’re our natural collaborators in exploiting innovative and contrarian technologies.