Many companies have a “fire and forget” mentality when it comes to developing and selling products – they pursue and focus on the customer until the sale and then forget about him/her until the next sale. That’s like pursuing a girl until you get to first base (or beyond) and then disappear. All products go through a life cycle from initial product launch to (hopefully) market acceptance, market saturation, and then end of life. (For simplicity, we will skip the concepts about “crossing the chasm”, early adopters, laggards, etc.) End of product life can be due to a number of reasons, including supplier parts unavailability (especially with the chip market), change in technology (e.g., PC operating systems), and just a general change in market conditions. At some point, it may also get prohibitively costly to continue support for older products used by a relative few. One of the most important things to do is getting regular updates from Purchasing and Engineering to understand the supply chain and technology changes. They can do last time buys, tap the grey market for certain parts, create repair exchange programs, or do re-engineering to extend a product life cycle to a certain point.
It is important to work with your customers to communicate the product roadmap, product life cycle, and options at each product life stage so that they can plan their budget, training, facilities, and transition accordingly. Some products need to be validated and compared to their predecessor. You may offer trade-in discounts, parts exchange, customized support services as options. Don’t make it a surprise where the customer must scramble. You will probably have to communicate this a number of times since customers tend to ignore or forget when things are running fine.
Remember that a product’s end of life can lower competitive barriers to entry and expose you to competition if not planned carefully. A user can use this opportunity to seek other options if he has been unhappy, has to retrain staff or find that the transition to your replacement product is just as time-consuming or costly as switching altogether – don’t give them that excuse to look elsewhere. Try to develop your replacement products with hooks to make the transition as seamless and painless as possible, e.g. import existing data in software, share common user interfaces, help files which explain product differences, upgrade packages, etc.