Digital Strategy & Transformation

RAD in Lisbon: Bringing a Customer-Centric approach to Portugal’s Tech Scene

by Sergio Pozzetti

Customer-centricity is one of the fundamental requirements embedded in business agility making it possible for a company to thrive in an ecosystem where market conditions, client demands and technological advancements are in constant motion. While this may sound about right and even a bit like common sense, at RAD we are keen on explaining what this means in terms of our day-to-day operations.

Moreover, in this article, we will focus on those deceptively tiny, localised differences which may be instrumental in engaging the client. After all, McDonald’s did add soups to their menus for the Portuguese market, they selectively changed their hamburgers’ signature special sauce to wholegrain mustard in France, so why should we be pretentious to the point of thinking that Customer-Centricity means just one thing irrespective of the country in which we are working? It is, at the end of the day, about embracing the beauty of cultural diversity while enforcing the core concepts.

Facing the ghost of previous journeys

The hype inherent to digital transformation, agility and ways of working strikes hard on those who are not able to identify snake oil salespeople and more so if the latter is able to get their way by pushing silver bullet methodologies. This contributes towards a pungent untrustworthy landscape. 

Interestingly, an intrinsic characteristic of Portuguese businesspeople is their preference for personal, long-standing relationships as opposed to arid business channels spawning from contracts. Yes, that famous Agile Manifesto value does have a real-world counterpart. While this facet does mean the ghost can sometimes be present, to an extent where it becomes really hard to regain trust, it also fuels the idea that engagement has very little to do with formal, written and detailed deals. Trust is the precondition for working together. Whatever document backs it up is but an escape pod for when things go haywire.

A typical use case is therefore facing a group of stakeholders with whom you are trying to co-create a customer-centric solution, except they do not trust you. You are just another one of those happy-faced, loud-speaking court jesters who will make us pour our hearts into post-its. You do not know what we had to endure to get us this far. You did not feel the pain, sweat and tears. We know your kind and you are not welcome in this group.

Welcome to the world of inherited distrust, also known as “the ghost”. Many approaches come to mind in order to fight this battle. However, not fighting it is a perfectly valid solution. Know the business, but do not just read about it, excel at it. Know the issues, but think about how they could be approached so that you become part of the solution. And finally, know your stakeholders, but do not just know their title and responsibilities, empathise with them, find common grounds, explore the pains and commit to an action plan, in short, build a relationship. So how is that “not fighting” the battle? Very simply by not taking the centre stage. In fact, staying off the stage altogether. Make your most precious contribution and your most fulfilling moment about having the people with whom you are working shine.

Navigating the treacherous waters of discovery

Another interesting if comparatively rare characteristic of Portuguese culture is to stay away, as much as possible, from confrontation. Social harmony is valued above all petty discussions. It takes a wave of hugely felt injustice to spark protests and when they do happen, it is extremely rare that these become violent. This is an invaluable ingredient when it comes to facilitating discovery workshops, because,  as you may have predicted, it does come with a dark side of its own.

Let us go back for a minute on what discovery actually is and why it is deeply woven in the fabric of any customer-centric approach. If the Client Era has taught us anything, it has taught us about the paramount activity of diagnosing and understanding the problem while staying away from the solution itself. Looking at data, processing it into information, listening to complaints, reading verbatims, reframing them, dissecting them, interviewing, going on service safaris, applying root-cause analysis and other such techniques to - in a word - distilling evidence of what the real issues are is absolutely key to identifying unmet needs.

As a result, one could easily state that discovery is - or should be - a rather violent process. The outcomes may hurt. They may hurt egos, beliefs, and sometimes even rattle the very foundations of a team, a department and - why not - the product, service and the purpose itself. It is anything but smooth sailing in the clear waters of the Caribbean, but rather surviving the vicious razor-sharp waves of the Southern Ocean. If the former rings true, accept you did not do your job correctly. The annoying chorus of “yes-people” who are in constant agreement with anything that is presented to them is a downhill slide to mediocrity. No, we do need just that little bit of chaos, that little bit of excitement, that moment where tempers run high and we need to take a break. We are, of course, not talking about not being constructive, or civilised, but a point discussed with passion has a lot more chances to crystallise into a brilliant idea. And this is by no means powering discussion for the sake of it, it is about guiding, navigating, sometimes being the referee in a sports game, others being the sheriff in a remote town of the old West. 

End-users as lighthouses

Whether we are deep into a discovery process or maybe more advanced in the design thinking flow and already co-ideating and co-creating solutions we cannot stress enough how crucial it is to have end-users involved during the whole process.

Let us think back to the 15th and 16th centuries, an age of discovery and navigators, new routes being born regularly and the golden era of maritime exploration and evolution. While we do that, which adjectives come to mind? “Adventurous”? “Courageous”? In fact, Vasco da Gama, Bartolomeu Dias and other Portuguese explorers had very clear purposes and objectives and planned everything to the extent of their knowledge. Nevertheless, they constantly inspected and adapted, based not only on direct observation but local insights that natives and other sailors brought with them at each port of call. So, absolutely, there was an element of controlling one’s fear of the unknown but also enough humility to bridge that gap, leading to understanding how maps, islands and coastlines therein needed to be improved and passing on that expertise to others as well as developing new tools to help navigation. Bottom line, no one sailor did it alone. All of them had to rely on each other and, more importantly, on local specialised intelligence in order to evolve.

It is quite commonplace to hear users do not know what they want or need. Most of the time you would be right. Not unlike stating ice is slippery, or that magnets can either attract or repel each other depending on how you align them. When you go deeper, that is when things start to get interesting (as the great physicist Richard Feynman would put it). In fact, it is more accurate to place yourself within a framework wherein you allow some things to be true, and state users are not able to formulate what they want or need but they are otherwise able to formulate their own perception of what they see, hear and feel. That is the hidden value. That is the truth you do not know. That is pure gold. And that should be our guiding light in these treacherous waters. Once we understand it, where we need to go becomes much clearer.

Finding next ports of call, together

We touched on several subjects related to customer-centricity and its Portuguese flavour in the IT industry. Firstly the importance of becoming an impartial but trustworthy facilitator through domain immersion and empathy, being able to stir things up during the discovery process and just being silent and observing when required. We emphasised the importance of knowing, as a team, our unknowns and listening to the outside world, namely end-users, who may not always be able to paint the big picture but have an immensely rich offering when it comes to killer insights and specialised knowledge. 

To close the loop, and go back to the very initial point related to trust and personal connection over contracts and formal deals, we believe in continued collaboration towards excellence. And yes, excellence does have its own specific seasoning around here. It is no coincidence that Portuguese start-ups are flourishing and that more and more companies are looking to establish themselves here. One of the main industries in Portugal is tourism. What does that have to do with anything? Well, when one thinks about it, it is the very force which pushes customer-centricity to prioritise ease of use. In other words, any digital solution needs to “speak” the universal language of a delightful user experience. It is embedded in the very engineering of digital solutions, right from the start, because the target which needs to be considered is, right from the start, the whole world. This is why having RAD as a partner will first and foremost be about establishing this trust and continuous collaboration towards excellence. We are in Portugal, but more than that, we are Portuguese when it comes to that, because we are inside the market, we are also outside of it, breathing it all in as we learn and venture into unknown waters with our local partners as with those across the world.