Since I’ve gotten into web development I’ve spent a good amount of time building new web applications and taking care of web applications. One web application in particular really stuck out by slowly becoming a train wreck. This web application was highly specialized for a certain department in high multi-million dollar companies. For a customer the application subscription had a base cost of $1000/m. Add in support and user licenses, most customers ended up paying any where between $1500-$2500/m. Although the application wasn’t necessary for the customer’s business to function it did make their business life a lot easier.

Even though the cost of the subscription is pretty high, it didn’t affect the customer’s demands as far complete customization. Most thought that “this is the application and this is how it functions, and that is it. I need to figure out how to do what I need to do within those bounds.” That is a reasonable thought. You can’t call Microsoft and ask them to make a change to Office just because you bought their software. Unfortunately this company allowed that as a way to add value to the subscription. Yes, you read that right. A customer could dictate features, improvements, and other parts of the application. This had dire consequences.

Lets take a step back. In general it is expected that any actively developed program/application has a new release about every 8-16 months along with maybe a patch to fix bugs either on going or every 4-8 months. It is reasonable to let users suggest improvements, and point out bugs. As a business it is your job to acknowledge the customer. It doesn’t mean you have to do the improvement or fix the bug. Although it is in your best interest to listen to your customers. This approach allows the customer to feel like they are being heard but leaves control in the hands of the business.

The web application I spoke about above let the customers not only be heard but let them take control. My time working on the application I spent many weeks building new features that certain customers wanted. When that feature was released to all customers several customers would want a change, which we would do. Those changes would be released. The original customer who wanted the feature would either complain and want more changes done. Or they would stop using the feature all together or really never intended to use the feature. Apparently some form of this has gone on since before I started working on this web application and will continue to go on until the web application explodes. There was no real thought about what sort of impact this feature would have on the application, nor if other customers would use it, nor how important this feature really was. Features were just blindly build or changed based on one customer. It was a mess.

This doesn’t just happen in the software world. This can happen to any business. I have a friend who managed a small niche shop. He carried one item for one particular customer who said she would come in once a week to buy it. She came in once a month. Then not at all. That item had a big foot print in his little shop. He couldn’t just buy one of the item either he had to buy twelve. The lady only bought three. He made a total of $9 off of her and for a year the other 9 sat there until he sold them at cost to the first person who was slightly interested.

This can go both ways too. I had a client who refused to listen to his customers and refused to improve. It was his way or the highway. Unfortunately his way wasn’t the way his customers wanted it. His business closed about two years ago.

It is a fine line that needs to be walked. Your customers are the life blood of your business and in some form they will change your business. But giving up control to your customers can have disastrous effects. This week take a moment to reflect, are you listening to your customers? To what degree? How have your customers affected your business? Has there been times your customers changed your business for the negative? For the positive?

Just remember, just because a customer asks your to jump, doesn’t mean you have to.