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A trusted product: How lessons from consulting can help create lasting products

Deepak Bharathan

Consulting Magazine

9 September 2013


One of my friends runs a product company which creates software for mid-sized companies. He recently created what can be described, even in this hype-blooming sector, as an innovative product. The product meets a real need for his target market and the execution is flawless. The problem: no sales.

This problem is not unique. Silicon Valley is rife with ‘great’ products that no one bothered to buy. A better mousetrap is just table stakes now; there’s more to do before the world beats the path to your door. The elusive trait, especially in the ever changing technology products space, is trust. Building trust is a task that one industry understands better than most: Consulting. Whatever else be the reality of the consulting business model, one thing is absolutely certain—consulting delivers value only when the consultant builds trust with the client.

So what is trust? Imagine receiving fashion advice from your best friend versus a stranger (or, more appropriately, from a smartphone app). It’s almost certain that you will do something about the former, while in the latter instance you might be reluctant – even if the advice is exactly same. The difference between the two scenarios is, well, trust. In this arena, technology products will greatly benefit by taking three important lessons from the world of consulting.

Lesson 1—Understand the issue quicker each time: A good consulting firm uses its resident knowledge about the client to understand the issues quicker each time. Connecting the dots is how consulting firms build a book of business. Demonstrating understanding and empathy creates a virtuous cycle where the client opens up further, resulting in targeted projects.

Similarly, a great product needs to understand the customer issue quicker each time round. The way most companies do this is through analysing product usage – everything from click-through rate to where customers use the product. This intelligence improves the product. But analytics alone is never enough; there is simply no substitute to directly talking to your customers. The services arms of big enterprise product companies like Microsoft and Oracle are not just additional revenue channels, but also serve as important input towards product improvement. Without doubt, repeated engagement with the customer refines the sales pitch in a way no marketing campaign can.

Lesson 2—Benefit from the Network: How does a product build a network? Look no further than the biggest of them all: Facebook. While using Facebook, the product vanishes into background and the face of Facebook becomes your circle of friends.

Having a trusted person use a product over-and-over, improves our perception of the product. Robert Cialdini, author of the bestseller “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion”, popularised the concept of “social proofing” which suggests that a product’s success is linked to its endorsement by an informed social network. In consulting, client quotes, case studies and reference calls are a routine part of business—never underestimate this aspect of product marketing. Make your product great, but also make it easy to endorse.

Lesson 3—Do not overextend: The primary reason why consulting firms fail: they try to do everything for everyone every time. Good consulting firms steer clear of this trap; so should good products. The product needs to do a limited number of things smartly. For instance, there’s a good reason why there isn’t (yet) an app that compares airfare, buys tickets and knows about flight delays all in one seamless package. Products, like overambitious consulting firms, sometimes blunder by adding too many features beyond their core expertise. Jack Dorsey, co-founder of Twitter, said it best: “Make every detail perfect and limit the number of details to perfect.”

In this age of personally targeted invasive advertising, a ‘trusted product’ might seem like an oxymoron, but there’s a subtle—yet important—difference between privacy and trust. Privacy is about creating smart fences around personal data; trust is about understanding well enough to criticise (although, just because you can criticise doesn’t mean you have to.)

Product creation, with its often unstructured innovation, might seem worlds apart from consulting, which is focused on targeted results. But in the truest spirit of asynchronous learning—these lessons from consulting are highly transferable towards creating lasting technology products. So how do you make fashion advice from a smartphone app ‘stick’ with the user? Build trust. J. M. Barrie, creator of Peter Pan—an everlasting product in every sense, summarised this thus: “All the world is made of faith, and trust, and pixie dust.” Since pixie dust is rather hard to come by, trust is the next best thing.


Deepak Bharathan is a business and technology strategy expert at PA Consulting Group


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