Sunday, March 27, 2016

Empty Customer Chairs – Illustrating the Absence of Customer Participation

Once upon a time, there was a company that said it was customer focused.  They used Agile methods to incrementally build software. At the end of an iteration, each team within the company would conduct a demo session.  The feedback from the demonstrations would be used to adapt the product toward what was deemed as customer value.  When the demo was investigated, it was learned that there were no actual customers or end-users in the demo. The question that may then be posed is if there are no customers in the demos, then what are the teams adapting too? 

What appears to be a challenge to some companies who say they are customer-focused or Agile, is how to successfully construct a functional demo.  The short answer is that customers or at least the end-users must attend the demo.  Of course this is more easily said than done.  The long answer is to establish a the Agile Customer Feedback Vision.  This vision is a strategy for identifying the right customers to attend, applying personas that represent the various customer groups, establishing feedback sessions throughout the work, and then motivating the customers to attend the feedback sessions. 
In the meantime, how do you highlight the problem of the missing customers?  Certainly those in the company understand that gaining customer feedback is important to the success of a product.  Even when providing companies with the mechanics of a customer feedback vision, customers are still found missing from the demos.  Why is that?  Maybe it's important to illustrate the obvious, that customers are indeed missing from the demos.    
One way to illustrate the obvious to companies and their teams is by applying the Empty Customer Chairs technique.   The Empty Customer Chairs is a visual way to highlight the absence of customers at a demo of the product.  The technique is applied by having 3 chairs that represent the customer at a demonstration. If customers attend the demo, they fill the chairs.  If no customers attend the demo, then the chairs remain obviously empty.  If the demo is held virtually, then 3 virtual screens are designated to customers.  If no customers attend, then those 3 screens remain empty. 

It would be hoped that a company or team realizes the benefit of customer participation.   Until such time, this technique can help you illustrates the obvious lack of customer participation that may have the intent to motivate the filling of those seats. At the end of the day, it is all about delivering customer value and this is a technique that can help you highlight the importance of this value through the absence of the customer.