Customer obsession begins with owning the customer’s problem

Years ago, I was walking through a parking lot in Mountain View, CA, when I bumped into Scott Cook, the founder of Intuit, the software firm known for such blockbuster financial applications as Quicken, QuickBooks, and TurboTax.

As we briefly chatted, I mentioned that I was a Quicken user. Cook’s eyes narrowed as he leaned toward me. “Really?” he said. “What can we do better?”

It’s been over two decades since that encounter, but the exchange has always stuck with me.

In my experience, tech executives are good at telling you what their companies do well but not as eager to ask for feedback.

In the course of building a nearly $10 billion company over 39 years, Intuit has carved out a reputation for “customer obsession,” so when I got a chance to catch up with Nhung Ho, vice president of artificial intelligence, I jumped at the chance to find out how that obsession plays out in real life.

Owning the problem

Ho joined the company in 2014, shortly after earning her doctorate in astrophysics at Yale. While in school, she had adopted Intuit’s Mint financial management software.

“I loved it, but there were a lot of things I didn’t like,” she said. “Why couldn’t it be smarter?”

When Intuit interviewers asked why she was applying for a job there, she replied bluntly, “I hate Mint.” So she was hired to come in and make it smarter.

Since then, Ho has been working on ways to incorporate artificial intelligence into both the customer experience and how developers choose the features that go into products.

Much of the process involves observing.

In-product surveys bring in millions of responses, and the company has built algorithms to comb through them and look for patterns that indicate problem areas. Software-as-a-service delivery gives designers the luxury of peeking over customers’ shoulders to see what features they’re using and how.

“We hear customers say they love a feature, but what they do every day can be drastically different,” Ho says.

Intuit’s culture combines design thinking and “falling in love with the problem and not the solution,” Ho says.

Once new features are settled upon, “We bring customers in and talk to them – both the customers have and the ones we don’t have.” There’s also room for what Ho calls “leaps of faith,” which are solutions customers haven’t specifically asked for.

Designing to delight

Software development at Intuit always involves what the company calls a “design for delight” phase in which prototypes are developed and tested with customers.

Design teams include people who specialize in research methodology. Then, borrowing from academic research, hypotheses are developed for each new feature and tested on a sampling of customers, with the mix frequently changing to avoid introducing bias.

Solutions are built with simplicity as a guiding principle.

“We always build the simplest model possible at the beginning to validate that there is a ‘there’ there,” Ho says. “We quickly pull a few people together to see if it’s useful for them.”

Designing for simplicity can be a challenge for developers who tend to favor features over form.

“If people say they’ve built the perfect model, we make sure they’ve thought about what problem they’re solving and how they would measure success,” Ho says. “It’s not just how awesome your technology is.”

Customer feedback can be a splash of reality.

Ho recalls testing a feature developers created two years ago that enabled small business customers to build forecasts a year ahead of time to help with budgets and staffing.

“When we took it to the customers, they said they didn’t need a year of forecasts; three months was fine,” Ho says. “They also didn’t need the level of granularity we gave them. That was shocking to our team.”

In adding a feature to TurboTax that matched customers to tax experts, simplicity also won out.

Testing revealed that one simple rule – the customer and the tax expert were in the same state – was as effective at making a match as a complex algorithm.

“You can over-optimize for no reason,” Ho says.

Intuit cultivates customer obsession from day one.

Every new employee goes through training in customer-driven innovation and designing for delight, with refresher courses always available. In addition, managers are held accountable for customer satisfaction scores.

At 71, founder Cook is a multi-billionaire and one of Silicon Valley’s most successful entrepreneurs. Yet, he keeps an everyday presence at Intuit, where he is available for problem-solving sessions with employees at any time.

“Everybody comes out super-energized from a session with Scott,” Ho says.

I’m not at all surprised.