Editor’s note: Eric Jackson, a technology consultant and developer, is a regular contributor to Local Tech Wire. His column appears on Tuesdays.

BLACK MOUNTAIN,There are three levels at which you can think about a product.

The lowest level is to think of the product as a bundle of functionalities. At this level, we find ourselves selling a technology, rather than the application of that technology, or even worse, selling nothing more than a list of features. Sophisticated buyers of technology realize that they don’t use most features and increasingly discount their value. And most buyers seek not a technology, but a solution.

Thinking of the product as a solution advances us to the next level. Here, we realize that the buyer wishes to purchase a cheerful ambience rather than a bucket of paint, or increased sales rather than a CRM product. This mode of thinking certainly represents a vast improvement over the previous level, and is the critical step in successfully commercializing a technology. Many successful businesses are built with products at this level.

There is a third level of thinking about products that is becoming increasingly important: seeing the product as the sum total experience of the customer. This means considering everything that impacts customer perception, from the sales person to ease of use and documentation to support to news coverage. While it is usual for a smart company to consider the influence of all these “peripheral” items on the success of a product, and to use them in its competitive strategy, it is not so usual to consider them collectively as part of the product itself.

Why bother?

The answer is simply this. Both consumer and business markets increasingly have the character of networks, inter-linked players who actively communicate and collaborate with one another.

Old-fashioned word of mouth has become global and extremely fast, and the ability to leverage this characteristic is rapidly becoming a critical part of competitive strategy. In practical terms, this means that your customers and potential customers are likely either to become active partners in selling your products, or active opponents. Which they become depends not on some particular product feature, but on their entire experience with it and your company. Like it or not, every aspect of their experience will combine in the minds of your customers to define your product.

Remembering the entire customer experience

So what does it mean to work from this level? Simply put, the entire customer experience must be included in design considerations at every stage, and the design itself must be carried out with a focus, not on the product, but on that experience. This is undoubtedly easier to do when both company and product are new, but even if not, the tasks are essentially the same.

First, you must begin from an understanding of the company’s identity and core values. Alignment between these and the market perception that the company seeks are always important, but from the standpoint of product-as-experience, it is vital. Ideally, the design of the customer experience will both derive from the company’s identity and values and also have consequences for them and for the kind of corporate culture that must be promoted and maintained.

Next, you must define the product, i.e., the experience you seek for the customer. This definition must be broad, incorporating every aspect that will shape the customer’s perception of the product. It must also be specific since, as in any design task, vague requirements cannot produce a well-targeted result.

If the product or company already exists, a complete and honest assessment of your customers’ current experience is required. Do not make the mistake of assuming that success and growing sales necessarily imply a positive experience — the seeds of failure often long precede the point where it is obvious. Make sure you consider those outside the organization who are involved with the product — sale people, distributors, press, retailers, etc. It is vital that the actual experience, all of it, be captured and compared to that desired in order to discover areas that need attention.

Product in alignment

More generally, you must ensure that all aspects of the product experience are aligned with one another and with that desired. For example, a company seeking to differentiate itself through product reliability might place particular value on strong engineering skill and show little regard, through its reward structure, for the less technically competent personnel in the support department, leading to high turnover there. When the few customers who experience quality problems contact the company, their experience is very poor, an experience they pass on to their network. The company is then surprised to discover that it actually has acquired a reputation for unreliable products.

What must a company do to maintain alignment? Most important is communication. The integrity of the product depends on smooth interaction between all parts of the corporation that contribute to the product; a siloed organization with poor communication between units will be hard-pressed to maintain this integrity. Further, the entire company, especially the leadership, must buy in and actively support the effort since only this way will collaboration occur consistently.

Further, outcomes must be measured, both the organizational behaviors that have been determined to be required, and the actual experience of customers. There are many ways to do the last, but the most straightforward, if you are serious, is to tell your customer who you are, what you stand for, what you intend for them to experience, and then to ask them to hold you to it. Chance are, they will, and you had best be prepared to respond.

If you do, you may find that your best sales people are those who have paid for the privilege.

Ideas? Suggestions? Contact Eric at eric@deepweave.com

Eric Jackson is the founder of DeepWeave. He has built his career pioneering software solutions to particularly large and difficult problems. In 2000, Eric co-founded Ibrix, Inc. He is the inventor of the Ibrix distributed file system, a parallel file storage system able to scale in size and performance to millions of terabytes.