What is the first question?

I work with some providers who sometimes call me when one of their customers has a problem with an application.

What is the first question you ask in a meeting with a customer?

  • Which technologies in your application ?
  • Is it a big application ?
  • Is this application complex ?

No. I see that every time. And this is a natural reaction: first, qualify the application. Sure, you want to know if you can adress the needs of this customer. Sure, your partner looks to evaluate what could be the size of a possible deal.

There are 4 phases in a busines lifecycle: start-up, growth, maturity and decline. Twelve years ago, I was managing the implemementation of a Configuration Management software for a big Telco. After some weeks, the project team had doubled up: with all the advertising campaigns running on, it was impossible to delay the launch of the software. Six months later, the project team had increased by 4. These companies had to work on four commercial offers a year in order to stay ahead of their competitors or to increase their shares of a very rapidly growing market.

Some years later, another customer asks me to audit his most important application. This time, this is an insurance company, and I am with the IT manager of the division representing the heart of the company’s business: 45% of the revenue. His problem, not to say his main pain: almost no profitability. It has been 50 years at least that everybody has an insurance for the car, the house, against fire or your son playing soccer in the garden at the risk of your neighbor’s windows. Market mature or declining.

The role of IT is to align on the strategic objectives of the company. To summarize it very simply, this manager has one of these two concerns:

  • To deliver applications on time and zero defects, in order to support the strategy of market gains (growth phase).
  • To deliver applications within budget, and incidentally without too much delay or defects (mature or declining market).

Now, imagine that your client tomorrow is a Telco. What is the first question you should ask yourself? Before the appointment?
Probably, that his application is twelve years old, four releases a year, has gone through the hands of different development teams, and that his budget has just been reduced. In other words: it’s big, it’s complex, it’s painful.

Or it could be the head of the banking division of the old insurance group, who has decided to bring its full weight towards this new market: selling security based on the sales force of your bank. No more need of a broker, just software integrated with the bank’s information system, and sure the ability to evolve it very rapidly in order launch new offers faster than the competition.

So the first question is: what is the strategy of the company?
In fact, you will be surprised to see how much any client is very happy and proud to explain what he does.
And then comes the second question: how do you align your IT strategy with the objectives of the company? Very simple:

  • Growing market: deliver applications on time. The budget does not matter. But it must work perfectly from the first day. Zero risk first, then costs.
  • Market maturity / decline: on budget. Anyway, this application is so old that users expect some delays or it that it does not work at first time. Of course, it is better to avoid risks, but priority to costs.

What I mean is this: start at the beginning. The application comes at the end and you will have gained much credibility by starting to ask your client who he is and what he does before asking him where it hurts.

He will be grateful if you ask the first question.

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