If you're in the business of selling products, then the idea of updates and upgrades shouldn't be a foreign one. In fact, customers expect-and demand-constant evolution, especially in a marketplace where the barriers to entry are low or when there's competition.
If your product remains the same with no upgrades, the chances of someone else surpassing your products through better quality, lower prices, new add-ons and the like are pretty good. And keep in mind that "upgrades" doesn't just mean adding on-it can mean subtracting functionality if that creates a better user experience. So to keep up with customer expectations, you just keep upgrading your product, right? Well, not exactly.
The key to rolling out product upgrades is to establish a systematic structure for a) determining which upgrades to make based on customer feedback, b) prioritizing the "wish list" of your customers, c) maintaining a shared list of the upgrades so everyone involved can be on the same page, d) managing engineering teams to implement the upgrades, and e) effectively offering the upgrades to your customers.
While there's obviously some variation to this process based on the industry you're operating in, the premise remains the same regardless. Let's briefly touch on all the above key points.
Determining which upgrades to make based on customer feedback shouldn't be anything new. Constant interaction and discussions with your customers should quickly reveal the most important upgrades needed to keep old customers coming back and to attract new ones.
Prioritizing is a bit tougher. Inevitably there are going to be certain customers who want certain features that other customers don't care for. Balancing these competing agendas can be a challenge. Be sure to keep in mind your return on investment for each new upgrade. For example, if you spend $5,000 on building a new feature into your widget, how many new customers would that help you attract or keep?
Your third goal, inter-communication among everyone involved in producing the upgrades, can be difficult, especially if you maintain a virtual organization where not every person works in the same office. To that end, it's good to establish an intranet or some other form of shared online work space to keep an updated list of upgrades and the status of development for each.
Once you have a prioritized list, you need to direct engineering to make it happen. The hard part here is balancing your ability to think strategically about your business objectives with your ability to communicate effectively with your tech employees. The few in the world who possess the intellectual brainpower to know technology like the back of their hand and also know business have been hugely successful (a la Michael Dell of Dell Computers, among others). Unless you can do this well, your next bet is to make sure you have consistent, documented and milestone-based communication between you and your technology/manufacturing folks.
If you can get to the last step, rolling out the upgrade to the customer, count yourself lucky. Many companies butcher product upgrades due to a breakdown of one of the above steps. Often this stems from misaligned expectations between the company, the customer, programmers, investors, analysts and anyone else who has a stake in product development. When you're ready to deliver your new product version, your first instinct may be to make a grand announcement about it and invite the press or customers to the announcement. I'd generally warn against this and opt for a more low-key announcement and a press release if necessary.
Marketing people talk about a lot of things when it comes to beating the competition: Strategies like positioning, product differentiation, pricing and so on all receive significant ink. But at the end of the day, I'm a believer that a decision about two competing products will factor significantly in the strength of the functionality and ease of use of the product. And to stay on the cutting edge, you need to be thinking "upgrades" all the time. If you take a breath, your competitors will pass you by and never look back.
Fifteen-year-old Ben Casnocha is founder and chairman of Comcate Inc., a San Francisco firm focused on providing technology solutions for local governments. His work has been profiled in more than 50 magazines, newspapers, radio stations, TV outlets and Web sites nationwide. He was recently named #6 among "The 25 Who Are Changing the World of Internet and Politics." Got something to squawk about? Write to Casnocha at email@example.com.