[Ed. NOTE:  Today's Whiteboard post comes from Sanjay Castelino, SolarWinds' VP of product management and product marketing.]

Some time ago, Kenny VanZant wrote a series of posts on the Consumerization of IT, and lately I’ve been thinking quite a bit about one aspect of this trend – being customer-driven.  What do I mean by being customer-driven and aren’t most successful IT management vendors customer-driven? 

Well the short answer is that customer-driven companies view the market through the lens of deep understanding of the problems and challenges faced by the majority of their customers.  Of course this sounds obvious and you’d expect that any company would want to understand and solve for the 95% rather than the 5%. That said, it probably doesn’t surprise you to learn that many companies don’t (or can’t) do this. Having managed products and product marketing for a while now, I realize that there are some very clever ways of faking being customer- driven…

Do what your biggest customers ask you to do. 
This is likely the most common of the approaches employed by many of the large IT vendors  -- do what their biggest customers want, with the assumption that what the biggest customers want till ‘trickle down’ to everyone else.  Many of these companies truly believe their customer-driven because they’re listening to customers, and they are bolstered by analyst firms who also spend all of their time with the biggest of the Fortune 500. This is great for the biggest customers, but typically your biggest customers have the most niche needs and so inevitably if you’re one of the rest of the customers you get little value out of this strategy. 

Copy the market leader.  Another more difficult one to spot is employed by the smaller, point solution guys trying to get a foothold and promising to do everything that you need for less - essentially a “copy-cat” strategy.  And, while it may look customer-centric, it really isn’t and could come back to bite you. Where this strategy normally comes to roost is when you actually have a new problem to solve – the vendors don’t know how to deal with this problem. What’s wrong with this approach you might ask?  Well, you can reverse engineer anyone’s product, but without the benefit of the customer conversations and background that went into the development it’s hard to know what’s really important to the customer.  Recently, I saw one vendor introduce a plug-in that had a better and cheaper open-source alternative.  The vendor wants their customers to pay thousands of dollars for something that is available for $100!  A customer-driven company would just point their customers to the best solution to solve their problem (and it doesn’t hurt that it’s cheaper).  I don’t know about you, but I firmly believe that you get what you pay for – you can’t just check the feature list, you have to understand the problems customers are trying to solve and build a product that best solves these problems AND meets the affordability criteria. 

Gaze deeply into the Crystal Ball. Finally, there’s the new management vendors solving some new problem that no one else solves, whether its cloud computing or virtualization.  These companies speculate what problems their future customers might run in to and then build technology to solve those problems. But, none of these technologies develops in a vacuum… they are interdependent on other aspects of the IT infrastructure.  When you fail to consider the ecosystem and try to game the market by projecting more than 18 months out, you can miss critical challenges or you begin solving for problems that can be addressed more effectively by integration with existing solutions.   Of course, if you’ve ever looked at these products you find that maybe 1 in 10 is truly useful – not companies you want to take a big bet on.

If you have read this far, the picture is not all that encouraging… so, how do you tell the real thing?   You start with the customers – how active is the community around the vendor you’re considering?

Community involvement means that customers care and are invested in the product.  For any business that’s been around a while customers only stay involved because they feel that they’re being heard.  If you can find the most dedicated customers – the MVPs – they’ll be able to tell you how the company has worked out for them in the good times and the bad, when they really needed help.  There are many more indicators, but I always believe that the community health is what’s going to give you the clearest picture of whether you’re working with a customer-driven company or not.

Customer driven companies are the ones that ultimately benefit you the most, and if you’re thinking that you’re vendor is running one of the above plays maybe it’s time to switch?