When Customers Talk to Engineers at NBU Customer Forum, Surprising Things Happen
The NetBackup (NBU) Engineering Team took a unique approach in its quest to listen to “the voice of the customer”: they invited them in-house. This case study explains how a technical forum held at a Symantec R&D center allows customers to become part of the decision making process.
Agility is the hallmark of a small business. Without layers of bureaucracy between the makers of a product and its customers, a small business can respond to customer needs quickly. The NetBackup (NBU) Engineering Team wanted to replicate that model and instill an excitement that drives an entrepreneurial spirit throughout the group. “NetBackup Founder Rick Huebsch introduced the idea in 2004,” said Bill Coleman, Director of Engineering for NetBackup (NBU). “As NBU grew over the years—we currently have 40,000 customers—he felt our engineers were becoming disconnected from the customers, so he developed the idea of a Customer Forum.”
Technical Forum Fills a Gap
The Forum is based on a simple concept: put the engineers in the same room with customers and let them talk. “As basic as that sounds,” continued Coleman, “it’s innovative and unique in our industry. There are plenty of marketing and sales events, but many of the people who use our product want more technical information. The Customer Forum fills that gap. It’s the only event I know of where the people who use the product get to speak directly to the people who design and produce the product. It’s like the person who builds a Ferrari talking to the person who drives it.”
Customers Pair Up with Engineers
The event is held once a year in Roseville, Minnesota. “The Customer Forum has been a hit since the first year we launched it,” explained Coleman. “People fly in from Russia, Japan and all over the world. Once, the boss of one participant would not authorize him to attend, so the man took personal vacation time and drove seven hours from Chicago to be here. We pair each customer with an engineer who acts as his personal valet over the two-day period. Every question they have gets answered. And if they need a manual or want access to the person who wrote our exchange agent, they get that too. One big benefit for our engineers is that the ‘buddy system’ we use really imprints on them the thinking and perspective of the customer. That’s invaluable.”
The Customer Forum is always held at a Symantec facility for a good reason. “We want our customers to see the building, equipment and the rest of the huge investment that Symantec is making in NBU,” noted Coleman. “The Forum consists of three main sessions with a total of 33 breakout sessions spread among 45 time slots because the most popular sessions are offered twice. We also set up eight kiosks running live product of our upcoming release so they can see it in action. Plus the engineers who built the new features can get immediate customer feedback to help improve the application.”
Making the Customer’s Job Easier
The NBU Engineering Team appended an Executive Day to the Forum to get feedback from decision makers. “We added a third day this year,” explained Coleman, “so we could share our vision and confidential plans with the executives who make the purchasing decisions and develop the data protection strategies. We wanted to understand the challenges they face from both of those perspectives. The more we learn from our customers, the more we can improve our product. The Customer Forum is so popular that we are expanding into AsiaPac this year. The Forum gives that intimate, small-business feel where our customers’ voices are not only heard but count. It shows them that we are committed to a long-term relationship and continual product improvement—which will protect their companies’ data and make their jobs easier.”
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