The Customers Disappear Right Before Our Eyes

Tonight I was foolish enough to think my family and I could waltz into a restaurant on Valentine’s and get a table without much trouble. We were trying a restaurant we hadn’t been to before and I realized as soon as we pulled into the parking lot this probably wasn’t the best night to experiment. We went inside anyway to see how long the wait was. Much to my surprise, the hostess told us it was only about a 15-20 minute wait. I looked around the restaurant and, while it was full, there wasn’t a large number of people waiting on tables. We got on the waiting list and then proceeded to wait.

What I saw during the wait was kind of surprising. I noticed that the staff were diligently doing their jobs, quickly moving from one spot to another. I had to be careful not to step too far away from the waiting area or I was sure to bump into one of the busy bee workers. And while the staff was incredibly focused on the operations of the restaurant, I couldn’t help but notice they were almost oblivious to their customers, whether those customers be waiting for a table, eating their meal, or somewhere in between. I looked around the restaurant of about 40 tables and noticed that at any given moment there were numerous people looking to get the attention of their waitress. Customers coming in through the door were rarely greeted in a timely manner. Those of us waiting for a table were ignored completely, even as our original wait time came and went.

It dawned on me that this situation is not unlike what happens with some software development projects. We get in the groove of producing the software and never take time to make sure we’re satisfying the customer. Yes, those of us practicing agile have the advantage of delivering in short iterations which, at worst, won’t allow a project to go too long before the customer is back in the mix. But, even on agile projects, I’ve seen teams go through an entire iteration without giving much thought to the customer’s needs beyond the initial planning meeting. We think we understand exactly what the customer wants, can’t or simply don’t get continuous feedback from the customer during the iteration, and we develop the functionality. We become like the restaurant’s staff, who are so busy running the restaurant that they forget about the very people who really keep the restaurant running, the customers. Sure, the orders are taken, the food is getting out to people, drinks are refilled, new people are put on the waiting list, etc., but the customers aren’t satisfied, let alone happy. The software gets designed, written, documented, tested, etc. but the customers aren’t satisfied, let alone happy. Sound familiar?

Tonight was a good reminder that technical and operational excellence is critical to delivering a good customer experience, but if we lose sight of the customer in that process then we will fail miserably. We need to be diligent about keeping constant contact with the customer and focusing on the value we’re delivering. We don’t want our customers to walk away from us like my family and others did on the restaurant we attempted to eat dinner at tonight.