Photograph by Getty Images
By Paula Long
November 2, 2015

The Leadership Insider network is an online community where the most thoughtful and influential people in business contribute answers to timely questions about careers and leadership. Today’s answer to the question “What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned in your career?” is by Paula Long, CEO and cofounder of DataGravity.

I was lucky enough to join a company that didn’t succeed during the 2000 dot.com bubble. Yes, you read that correctly. The vision for the company was amazing. The available market was huge. I had friends and past co-workers there. So, why weren’t we wildly successful like others in our space? While the company eventually built an amazing user interface, it didn’t understand its customers or its customers’ environments. Here are the two most important things I learned from this failure:

Know your customers
We built an application for website content management and high availability. Care to guess which industry had the largest number of commercial websites with enough revenue to pay for the product in 2000? If you guessed the adult entertainment industry, you’re correct. Our founders were reluctant to sell to that market. So we built a web management product, and we weren’t comfortable selling it to the largest pool of potential customers. Really? I won’t make a moral statement either way, but these were the most profitable companies running websites at the time, and they were the largest buyers of new technology. We should have known this before we started.

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There’s no such thing as “bad” customers
There are only badly designed products. During my tenure at this company, the person running engineering left. Hiring someone new for the role didn’t make sense for a lot of reasons, so I was nominated to lead the team. Customer support fell under engineering and we only had one support person on call 24/7, so I sat in on a bunch of calls and internal meetings about customer problems. I quickly noticed a theme that drove me crazy: engineers would dismiss issues because they were problems in the customer environment or the “customer misused the product.” It took me awhile to reset the culture, but I eventually made sure the engineering team always tested products in environments that weren’t “perfect.” Customer have no idea what you intend to provide; they can only use what you put in front of them. You need to be defensive in your designs and programming so the path to trouble is limited. It was in this role when I made customer happiness my number one priority.

Earlier I said this company’s lack of success was a fortunate experience for me, and it was. It shaped the way I approach product definitions, build teams, and prioritize customer happiness. I saw the struggle both employees and customers can go through when there isn’t a focus on the customers. It may be easier said than done, but once you’ve experienced this type of failure, understanding customers becomes imperative.

Read all responses to the Leadership Insider question: “What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned in your career?”

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