There's a right way and a wrong way to share your input with software vendors: share it the right way and you can influence the next release. Share it the wrong way, and you could become the squeaky wheel.

Maybe you’re a Community Manager, tasked with driving adoption and engagement of your new enterprise social network. Or maybe you're the CIO, striving to build safe, innovative practices led by IT. Whoever you are, you've taken the plunge with a social software vendor, and now your lives are intertwined in a relationship based upon employee status updates, “likes,” analytics, servers, release notes, tech support and a dictionary-like-contract.

But as social software has changed the game inside companies, it’s also changed the game in how vendors and customers work with each other on product innovation. “Social” is still a relatively new phenomenon, and believe it or not, the rate at which products are morphing and evolving inside vendor walls is astounding. So how do you get in on the action and influence the next release?

Traditionally, those practicing social media think of customer communities as forums where their brands and their teams can engage with fans, advocates, evangelists and even naysayers. Out in the wild of the web, there are lots of individual customers, and then there are the practitioners (you!) behind the scenes.

But in the realm of Enterprise Social, it’s a role reversal; remember that YOU are actually the customer, and YOU have a voice with your vendor. Just as you listen to your customers out on the web, the vendor providing your enterprise social network should listen to you.

It’s critical that you help the innovation process by engaging with your vendor of choice and sharing candid feedback. Software can't be developed in a bubble, and you can help shape the next version.

However, there are “right” and “wrong” ways to pitch your social software vendor on your ideas and needs. Think of your relationship as if you were two ballroom dancers, or a race car driver and pit crew, or even -- yes -- a marriage. Both sides need cooperation, respect and effective communication to be successful. With this in mind, here’s a “Top 3” checklist of what to do -- and what not to do – when you have ideas for new features that you would like your vendor to consider.

1. Do share your underlying business need and pain point. Don't simply request a specific feature without this context.

Vendors frequently hear requests such as, “can you make that button blue, and when you click on it, there’s an audible noise?” Unfortunately, ultra-specific feature requests are often ignored.

Vendors want to know what problem you’re trying to solve, not necessarily what a feature looks like in your ideal solution for your company. The general business need is much more important; in the example above, the request would have been ideally presented as,

Our workforce tends to have smaller, older computer monitors and they aren't social-media savvy. They can’t really see where to post a message and, due to some really bad internet connectivity, aren't sure if they have actually posted a message for several seconds.”

Vendors employ great product visionaries who are skilled at translating your business problem into technical solutions. Let them use their experience to build a solution to your problem.

2. Do gather support from other customers. But don't become the squeaky wheel.


Are you a member of your social software vendor’s Customer Council? If not, you should definitely get involved. It’s often where customers get access to early features and can provide candid feedback alongside other customers to the vendor.

For the purpose of getting a feature that you want built into a product, it will be critical that several customers have the same underlying business need or request similar features. Once you’re a member of the Customer Council, take advantage of the customer community, getting feedback on your feature idea from other customers and validating the need with them. When three or four Fortune 100s team up to request the same thing, it sends a powerful message to the vendor.

But at the same time, don’t bombard the customer community with so many ideas and so many changes that other customers start to ignore your ideas because they’re so plentiful and frequent. Choose your feature-request-battles wisely to keep your status and clout with other members who will ideally support you. If a vendor learns that many customers have the same pain points and that the customer base is talking collectively about a need, they’re likely to review the need carefully and quickly.

3. Do be nice and respect development deadlines. But please, don’t threaten.

Vendors can take a little heat from customers, especially when they make a mistake. And if suddenly there’s a security issue or critical bug, working to fix those problems is a completely different story. But if you want a vendor to make a voluntary change based on your ideas, simply pose a respectful, nice request at a time that’s convenient for everyone.

If the vendor is about to push a new version release, it’s not a great time to ask for a change. Engineers and customer managers are already crazed. But do make your voice heard at the right time and in the right manner -- and to the right people (typically your client success manager as a first stop) and you should get a positive response -- even if it is a “thanks, but we don't plan to have that on the roadmap.”

On the other hand, don't threaten that the absence of a feature will lose the vendor your business. It changes the tone from cooperative to hostile and makes negotiations a power game.

In the social enterprise, it’s all about relationships. Customers really do have the power to influence roadmaps and product development -- by dancing the dance and walking hand in hand with their vendor. After all, deploying social software is just the beginning of a long, mutually beneficial relationship between two groups that need each other to thrive.

Image courtesy of J Gracey Stinson (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: We look forward to reading more by Carrie, but in the mean time, read up on this month's focus on customer communities