Nobody is Complaining

Sometimes we fall into the trap of thinking that since no one is complaining about our work then everyone must be happy with it. This is a dangerous mode of thought because our customers may not in fact be happy with our work, and because it inhibits us from improving ourselves. Getting accurate customer feedback about our performance is critical if we are to continually improve.

A Personal Example

At Redacted Financial I have some resource needs that are slow to be filled. There’s a process in place to make sure you get the right resources, but budgetary constraints mean that resource needs must be demonstrated before they are doled out. This makes sense to a degree but:

Budgets are there to keep you from being irresponsible. They should not keep you from being smart. 
--Chris McKenzie

Yes, I’m quoting myself–but I really like that formulation :). The process to get more resources is just painful enough that my team members are averse to going through it. Our team has similar needs across the board so iterating through the approval process for each member of the team strikes me as wasteful. I’d rather identify a baseline for all of my team members and start each person with those resources. When I proposed this idea I was told:

We have resources allocated in wildly different ways and nobody is complaining. Clearly there is no standard baseline for your team.
--The Gatekeeper

I thought this attitude was interesting. In the mind of this engineer, “nobody is complaining” is equivalent to “everybody has what they need.” Sometimes as engineers we operate on the assumption that everyone complains if something is bothering them.

This is false. Marketers have known this for years. That’s why they spend so much time and effort to get you to fill out customer satisfaction surveys. Sometimes the most valuable information you can mine for is “where am I failing?” Marketers know that for every person who is vocal about there complaints, there are hundreds they will never hear from.

How can you find out if your customers are happy?

Let me ask a different question first: “Who are your customers?” There are different people who are impacted by your work. They are all stakeholders, but not every stakeholder is your customer. If you can’t look at your stakeholders and clearly identify your primary customer, consider using a Responsibility Assignment Matrix.

I found it useful in a recent project to use the RASCI matrix which is defined as follows:

  • Responsible – This is you in our example
  • Accountable – This is your customer. This is who you are accountable to. This isn’t your boss (necessarily). This is the person who will use the end-product of your work. It’s to enable them in their goals that you are doing yours.
  • Support – These are stakeholders who will support you in your efforts, but who do not directly consume the end-product of your work.
  • Consulted – These are stakeholders who should be consulted about your work. They may need to approve some aspect of what you’re doing, or they may have important insight about how you should go about your job.
  • Informed – These are stakeholders who should be informed about your work and/or your progress.

These matrices are often used to facilitate the repair of organizational disfunction, but they are also useful simply to clarify the roles & responsibilities of all of the stakeholders in your personal work ecosystem.

Once you’ve identified your primary customer, the simplest way to find out if they are happy with your work is… ask them. Face-to-face conversations are nice where possible. If you are lucky enough to be able to have a face-to-face conversation with your customers, try to adopt an attitude that is open to criticism. Don’t interrupt what they’re saying with explanations or excuses–even if you disagree with what they’re saying or if you think they’re wrong about something. There will be time for responding later. For now, your task is to listen and gather as much information about their assumptions and agendas.

Some customers will be confrontation-averse so a face-to-face conversation may not yield honest results. As mentioned before, surveys might be useful. An anonymous comment box (or anonymized email account) could work. It’s on you to figure out how to mine the information.

What do I do with customer feedback once I get it?

It may be hard to get the information. It may also be hard to hear it. You should take some time to reflect on the feedback before you respond, especially if it’s negative. Try to distance yourself from any initial emotional reaction so that you can consider more than just what the feedback says about you and your work. What is the underlying agenda your customer is trying to achieve? Are you helping or hindering that agenda? Are they lacking any key pieces of information? Are there other easy solutions to their problems?

When your customer gives you feedback, the worst thing you can do is not respond to it. If you fail to respond to feedback–positive or negative–you send the message that you do not value it. If you don’t value the feedback, it shows you don’t value your customer. You should respond to feedback even if you’re not sure you can do anything to address their underlyng complaint.

In our recent town hall, it was expressed that working on project teams instead of product teams isn’t ideal from the perspective of collective code-ownership. The response was “The Business doesn’t want to work that way.” We are not resourced to have product teams for the 50 or so applications we manage. Business priorities shift and sometimes require all of our resources to concentrate on a few applications at a time. This wasn’t happy news for our development teams, but it is understandable. My point is even if you can’t do anything to address the critical feedback due to issues beyond your control, you can respond to the feedback by explaining the other constraints to your customer.

The response to the town hall was overwhelmingly positive. Sometimes, it is enough for your customer to hear a good reason why it’s hard to accomodate their needs to reduce their frustration.

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