My most memorable customer voice – the power of bad news

Quarterly business unit meetings, otherwise known as “all hands meetings,” were part of the regular schedule at Adobe. Many of them focused on upcoming products and their new technology, revenue success or recognizing key contributors in the organization; they were useful, but blur together in retrospect.
But the meetings that stood out were those in which key stakeholders from installed and deployed customers came to describe their experience with our product and company. One memorable session was with Applied Materials; they had been the first customer to implement our product in a new use case (note that this is a software engineering and requirements term). The implementation had its hiccups along the way, but the customer worked closely with us and we resolved the issues. This often took some assertive behavior from the customer, but we all ended up with a better product and they solved their business problem well. What made this memorable was when the speaker told us that vocal advocacy of issues was part of the company culture from their founder, which could be summed up in the following sentence

Good news is no news,
no news is bad news,
and bad news is good news.

He went on to explain this quote, and I’ll paraphrase from the book Agile Business for Fragile TimesGood news is no news because it tells you what you already know; you’re on track. Everyone likes good news, and it is essential to keeping a team motivated. However, it is insufficient to drive change or precipitate action. No news is bad news, as people fill in their own information. But even more importantly, you don’t know if a quiet customer is very successful and happy or that they have given up on your software in disgust and have purchased a competitive product; you may not know until support renewal comes and they drop support. Bad news is good news because when times are tough you want to hear the worst as quickly as possible so that you can be aware, prepared, and take action.

I later learned that this quote from James Morgan, CEO of Applied Materials, has one extra phrase on action. The complete quote is even better.

Good news is no news,
no news is bad news,
and bad news is good news if you do something about it.

After I heard and read this, I looked back on the customers I’ve known over the years. The ones that had the most impact were those who brought up issues and problems and openly discussed them. We had many difficult conversations, but in the end I learned much more about their problem and they learned about the technology that could be brought to bear to solve their business problem. My best product designs and architectures came from the open dialog with these customers.

Nobody likes bad news, especially if the perception is that you’re bringing just that negative information. But taking this as a launching point for action and improvement is the best path. Better product and customer experiences come from listening to and acting upon the bad news.

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