The article in this series, 5.020401, “Are You Ready,” is very similar to this article. That article focuses on getting ready for field trials of a new product. This article is focused on assessing the readiness for the actual product launch. The overall theme is the same; take a step back and consider some of the details and perceptions of others that are not as close to the new product as you and your team are. In both instances, the old saying of “You only have one chance to make a good first impression” should be on your mind constantly.
The excitement can run high in anticipating the announcement of a new product. The quality organization has given their final blessing; manufacturing has shown that they can build it with consistency, and sales already have accepted some pre-orders from some of their best customers. Customer service reps have been given the appropriate documentation and have been trained on the product as well. All systems are “go”; but are they really? A new product release is just like a football game: All the preparation and well thought out plans can only be tested when the game actually starts. Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless; but planning is indispensable.”
Coupling Eisenhower’s quote and the fact that a customer’s initial experience or their first impression raises the need for carefully considering how the company will respond to unforeseen issues that almost certainly will arise. Another way of viewing the situation is to plan for success, but be overly prepared for potential failure. The customer service organization, with their past experiences in dealing with unexpected customer questions and reactions, is best positioned to lead the required preparatory effort.
Personnel that have been exposed to the products throughout its design and development iterations simply cannot think like new customers who are exposed to the product for the first time. Even trained customer service personnel are in the same position. An effective approach is to find internal or external individuals who have virtually no or very limited exposure to the product and ask them to “open the box” and, with no help from anyone, proceed to unpack, setup, and interact with the product as intended. All of the silent observers need to be ready to take notes, capturing the issues and misconceptions that are likely to occur.
Insist that the customer service personnel who are present address all issues raised by the “customer.” This will be a good test to determine if customer service personnel have been adequately prepared for the initial wave of customer calls. Invariably, simple issues that seem to make no sense will surface. An instruction as simple as telling the user to “Press F2” may result in a customer pressing the “F” key and the “2” instead of pressing the “F2” function key (true story). We all know that most customers simply do not take the time to read instruction manuals. Follow Hewlett Packard’s printer Quick Start example and show a customer how to unpack and set up a printer with pictures, not words.
Although a company may have extended standard hours of operation of 8 AM EST to 6 PM PST five days a week, consider extending them even longer and include weekends for several weeks or months after a new product release. Eliminate the Saturday or Sunday frustration of having to wait until Monday morning to have questions answered. Think about how YOU would like to be treated instead of mechanically repeating the company’s past standard operating procedures. Always remember and embrace the concept that a defect is defined as any deviation from a customer’s expectations. There is an article in this collection, “A Simple Definition of a Defect” that discusses this all-important concept.
Although your company may have a rock-solid reputation with your existing customers, new products probably will attract new customers. The small past idiosyncrasies or methods that are part of all of your previous products may be confusing to new customers. One simple example: Microsoft and its Windows™ applications use a two-button mouse while Apple and their various operating systems and applications use a one-button mouse. Consumers familiar with one may have a hard time dealing with the other. Automobile gas tank caps are located on the drivers’ side of most cars but certainly not all. Confusion followed by irritation may dampen a new product’s initial impression.
All product labels, manuals, and any other material associated with a product need to be thoroughly reviewed by a native language speaker. Humorous and sometimes fatal issues, resulting in a product’s non-acceptance in other regions, have occurred a countless number of times. These other regions may not be your target markets but may be exported to them by business partners or international customers. You may quickly find the need for 24/7 customer service operations.
Companies with existing products may be introducing new variations probably have standard warranty, repair and return policies in place. They, along with new companies entering a market segment or new region, need to carefully review those processes to ensure that they are appropriate. As an example, a company that has a liberal return and replace policy may run into trouble in certain countries that require the same serial number on a replacement product as was on the returned product.
The above examples only scratch the surface of the items that may be unconsciously overlooked when launching a new product. You can bet that the customer service department will be in the front line facing those issues. Make sure the company is really, really ready to support them.
It is natural to be excited and optimistically envisioning a bright future for the newly launched product. Negative comments simply have no room at the table. However, after-the-fact, the “I told you so’s” and the “We should have thought of that” will appear from all corners. A simple way to surface some of the potential issues that may arise is to hold a cross-functional round table discussion. Everyone will be apprehensive but insist on the meeting focus on what is wrong or what could go wrong. Turn the tables and discourage positive thinking! It is far better to identify issues beforehand, in time to change the future! It is really, really a better approach.