Selling underwear: How developers learned to love talking to customers

tl;dr
If you find resistance to doing product discovery and continuous learning in your organization:

  1. Work quickly to get to the root of the issue.
  2. Offer alternative ways to participate in uncomfortable activities while explaining the value of the work.
  3. Use this resistance as a teaching moment for the organization to consider how they’ll need to change broadly to support agility, customer-centricity and continuous improvement.

Victoria's Secret storefront in a mall with a woman looking in from the outside pushing a stroller with a toddler in it.

Around 7 or 8 years ago I was hired to do a 5-day training on product discovery and lean ux for the agile teams at Victoria’s Secret. It was during one of those “polar vortex” years as I hopped a short flight from cold and snowy New Jersey to even colder and snowier Ohio. Yep, while Victoria’s Secret brand image may be “big city cosmopolitan” their tech folks are based in Ohio. This was a big training event — 75 people for 5 days — and spanned every discipline on their tech team. Obviously the designers and product managers participated but so did the, software developers, QA folks, architects and DBA’s. I’d spent several months prepping the team for the workshop, set expectations and got not only verbal but written agreement for the agenda.

About a month before the training I reached out to the sponsor at VS and reminded him that while Day 1 of our training would be a fairly standard set of in-the-building exercises, Day 2 was the first (of several) outings to meet their customers in the field. He sent me confirmation that this was his understanding as well. A week before the event I sent a similar reminder, “Don’t forget, on Day 2 we’re heading out to meet your customers in the field.” “Yep, understood,” was the reply back.

On Day 1 of the training I stood in front of the packed room and introduced myself, the team that was supporting me and the plan for the week. “Remember, tomorrow, wear comfortable shoes because we’re going out to speak to customers.” No complaints.

On Day 2, I showed up a bit early to get ahead of the cohort when I saw the sponsor from VS. He called me over and said, “Jeff, listen, we have a problem.” I was worried. It was only Day 2. What could have gone so wrong on Day 1 that we already had a problem? He pulled me into his office and said, “We have some folks who are threatening to quit if they’re forced to go out and speak with customers today.” I was a bit taken aback. Never, in my entire career, had anyone threatened to quit a training simply because of one of the planned exercises. I told the training sponsor that we’d find a way to include folks in a way that wouldn’t make them quit the workshop. He stopped me right there, “No no. You don’t understand. They’re threatening to quit their jobs.”

No no. You don’t understand. They’re threatening to quit their jobs.

I was floored. It’s one thing not to want to take a training class. It’s another to quit your job over it. I’d never faced this before and, frankly, at first I had no idea what to do. I dug a bit deeper, “Why is there such resistance to speaking with your customers?” The workshop sponsor told me that they felt this wasn’t a part of their job description and that many of them expressly told him that they had chosen this line of work especially because it kept them from having to talk to too many people outside of their team on a day to day basis. In addition, the subject matter here was, for the most part, women’s underwear. This was so far outside of their comfort zone that it was enough for them to consider finding a job elsewhere.

I reassured the sponsor that I would address this broadly with the group, provide my rationale for why speaking to customers was an important activity and give anyone who wasn’t comfortable participating the option to sit it out. I then went out and stood in front of 75 folks and began explain the plan for the day. I told the team that we had built out a set of assumptions about our customers’ needs, how well our digital services meet those needs and how we might build better online experiences for them. These folks were shopping at competitor sites that, at times, were outperforming the VS online store. The insight we would get from these conversations would help us course correct more quickly with less investment in ideas that may not work. It would make us more agile. In addition, it would ensure that everyone on the team had a clear understanding of the problem we were solving for our customers and how they thought about shopping for the products that VS was selling online.

User experience is more than user interface

I made the case that while the user interface of the website certainly held great sway in what, how and how much was purchased there was so much more to the user experience. What comes up in search results? What “related” products should come up? How quickly should those results appear? Are there combinations of products that make sense to display together? If we were to deliver an experience that met our customers’ needs and did a better job than the competition, the entire tech stack had to be aware of how these customers thought about buying women’s underwear, what items were related and what made sense to display together. This wasn’t just about interfaces and product pages and shopping carts. This was about database schemas, search engine optimization and intelligent product suggestions. How could the folks who were threatening to quit their jobs be able to do a good job without that kind of insight?

What other ways can I participate in customer discovery?

That argument seemed to resonate with the room. They were motivated to learn about their customers but were terrified to go through the actual process. We came up with another solution for this — they would be notetakers. Notetakers hear customer feedback firsthand. They interact and engage with the customer but don’t have to do too much speaking. They do however, get unfiltered insight into how customers think about the products they were helping to sell online.

Pairing reluctant customer developers with folks more comfortable with this approach proved successful. We ended up sending over 30 teams into the field and they came back with tremendous insight about how to improve their ecommerce platform. In addition, they got first hand experience speaking with customers. They saw the value in the process and were even excited to get back out there and do it again later in the week.

A teaching moment for the organization

At the end of the training I sat down with the workshop sponsor and explained to him that this workshop was an early warning system test of the broader organization. The kind of work we did together during the training — assumptions, hypotheses, experiments, research, customer development, discovery, etc — is the kind of work the entire organization would need to evolve to. If we saw this kind of resistance from a relatively small portion of the company in the workshop, we’d surely see it in the broader organization. If they were going to commit to agility, customer-centricity, lean ux and product discovery they would need to take the lessons we’d learned in the workshop and scale them not only in how people work today but in setting expectations with prospective and new hires as well.

This has always been one of the more memorable engagements I’ve had in the last decade. I learned that no two engagements or companies are ever the same and to dig further into people’s concerns about an activity to understand the true motivation behind their resistance. I learned to offer ways for folks to participate that cater to those concerns and to ultimately advise an organization that these small flare ups are always a signal of broader cultural challenges as the push for agility and customer-centricity expands across the org.

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