Understanding our customers—or more specifically their urgent and expensive problems—is the key to developing a successful product. I’ve seen too many companies waste time developing a new product that no customer wants or needs. This often happens when a CEOs develops a product because they have fallen in love with an idea or a technology or are trying to out-do a competitor and they don’t want to take the time to talk to any customers about what real-life problems they are solving.
To understand those real-life problems, we need talk to our customers. Directly. Feedback from a sales force is not a replacement for our own customer conversations.
Interviews can be time consuming and a bit of a headache, if we’re being completely honest. But there is no other approach that can yield rich data with the deepest insights. And if you do them well, you don’t need to do that many.
I’ve talked to a lot of customers over there years. Here are 5 useful tips I’ve learned for doing this well – with a minimal amount of pain for you and the customer.
1. Be Clear on What You Need to Learn
We need be sure the conversation stays on task. We can easily let open ended questions spiral out of control or run off on a million tangents.
To make sure you stay on track start with a list of your hypotheses.
Then build your interview guide around those hypotheses. Your goal will be to prove or disprove each hypothesis. Review after each interview to see what you have learned and what you have left to learn. This keeps conversations headed in the right direction, to get the answers we need, without being overly prescriptive about where the conversation goes.
2. Start with the Basics
Remember, the #1 goal is to understand your customers’ most urgent and expensive problems. Use two or three broad and open-ended questions in the beginning of every customer conversation about their experience. Not only does this warm-up the conversation, it gives you the opportunity to explore the big picture. You are looking to learn:
Really explore the most pressing problems customers are facing from their point of view. Broad and open-ended questions open the door for the customer to express themselves without biasing the results (a real risk to be aware of).
3. Talk to a Representative Sample
We don’t have time to talk to everyone. So, this is where our customer personas come in. Well-developed customer personas will help us make sure we talk to the right mix of sample customers to capture a diverse mix of voices.
Keep in mind the product you plan to create – is it intended to bring in new clients? Make sure you have prospects in the mix. Could the product be received differently by very mature vs less mature customers? Will there be differences between the end user and actual buyers?
This may sound like a daunting number of interviews, but it is really about quality over quantity. If you plan ahead to have a good mix of participants, you should be able to get the data you need from 10-12 interviews.
4. Iterate, Iterate, Iterate
This should be your mantra in all thing’s product. Pull up your notes after every interview to highlight what you have learned. Return to those questions we discussed earlier. What is the most expensive, urgent problem people are facing? Can we solve that problem? Are we creating enough value for customers to jump on board? Have you proven or disproven your hypotheses? Do you need to re-work your assumptions?
Now, ask yourself, what do you need to change in the next conversation to continue learning? Should you tweak an opening question? Should you make changes to your product vision? Can you add more specificity to your sample packaging or pricing? Don’t go more then 2-3 interviews without adjusting your interview guide.
5. Be Customer-Centric
Finally, it’s imperative that we remember that we are dealing with people. People with packed schedules, to-do lists a mile long, and, basically, a million other things they could be doing instead of answering our questions. Keep the entire process focused on the customer. Work around their schedules. Thank them for giving up their time and sharing their insights.
You’ll also need to make them comfortable sharing – even when they have something to say that we might not want to hear. Be prepared for your customer to crush your vision entirely.
“Disarm “politeness” training: people are trained not to call your baby ugly. You need to make them feel safe to do this. My approach was to explain that I needed their honesty, so I didn’t build something nobody wanted to use, which seemed to resonate with folks.” –Giff Constable Chief Product Officer at Meetup.
Last but not least, we need to listen more than we talk. It’s human nature to fill the gaps that make us feel awkward. We can use prompting cues like “tell me more” or “interesting, can we expand on that?” The goal is to get the customer talking again.
As we have already noted, people are busy and sometimes hard to schedule, but don’t let that stop you. With hundreds of interviews under my belt, I can honestly say that 99% of people really enjoy being part of the product development process and appreciate that we value their opinions and care about their problems.
Don’t forget our team at Vecteris has decades of experience working with companies as they quickly bring products to market. Our team is highly-skilled at conducting the research companies need and providing actionable recommendations to move quickly on product ideas. Don't hesitate to reach out to see how we can help.
Product innovation and management are key capabilities for developing successful scalable, digital products. But if you're new to product innovation and management, building the processes and competencies you need to be successful can be overwhelming. For example, should you start by improving your voice of the customer skills or Agile project management skills or product usage analytics skills or all of the above?
My recent executive conversations have a common theme - speed. Specifically, they all want their teams to move faster.
For example, one client acknowledged they were still trying to figure out how to better prioritize so they could focus on executing at a pace they’ve never moved at before. They need to release products faster so they can learn from the market faster, but the team’s focus and sense of urgency is not where it needs to be.
To move faster, we need to adopt more flexible operating structures but we also need to change our standards of what ‘done’ looks like.
Earlier in my career, after returning from one of my maternity leaves, I was told that my role had expanded to that of “Product Manager.”
As a “Practice Leader,” I had strong customer voice and product development skills, but now my job was expanding to include product marketing, KPI management (including revenue targets), and long-term product strategy. I loved the expanded scope; however, although I had an MBA, I never received any formal Product Management training.
I was given an article about Product Management to read and I had to figure the role out on the fly. I made it work, but it wasn’t easy. I took a very boot-strap approach: I tacked a copy of Ben Horowtiz's Good Product Manager/Bad Product Manager  to my bulletin board, and read it every morning. And I took a leap of faith.
The companies I work with are usually B2B, knowledge-based companies (such as professional services firms) that are trying to develop new technology-enabled products—something outside their core product set. To do so requires them to think differently about how they work and how they create value for their customers.
It requires innovation.
I’ve come to learn that innovation can be tricky, and it takes hard work. It's not because the leaders are not visionary, or the team isn't creative or smart. Nor is it because the company culture is stagnating or stifling. It's because, as humans, we tend to favor the routine, the known, the comfortable. Innovation often takes us outside our comfort zones and it certainly almost always requires behavior change. So, rather than suggesting genuinely new ideas, we suggest ideas that we have seen work elsewhere. Or we turn to gimmicks that we think will make us more innovative. For example, “The right business process tool will help – let’s ditch Asana and start using Notion!” Or, even worse, we imagine that adopting open floor plans and bringing in a ping-pong table is what we need to get our teams to think more creatively.
In my experience, and the research supports this, making our companies more innovative requires 1) organizing for innovation, 2) upskilling our people, 3) adopting a disciplined process, and 4) establishing clear and aligned priorities. Here's what I’ve learned about how each of these elements can build an organization where ideas flourish and new revenue growth is possible.
“If I give this new product to my current sales team to sell, it might eat away my existing business.”
We hear this a lot.
So many executives get caught up in the fear that new products will detract, or worse destroy, their existing business. It is a legitimate concern. Total or partial cannibalization can occur when a new product moves customers away from current service offerings or product lines.
That’s why we spend a lot of time helping companies to scope, position, and launch new product innovations in a way that does not mistakenly cannibalize existing revenue streams.
We call our approach the 3 Cs of Cannibalization.
On the last day of February, Cincinnatian’s overcame freezing temperatures, grid locked traffic, and gusts of wind, hail, and snow, to attend a Women in Product Cincinnati event hosted by 84.51°, in downtown Cincinnati.
While the weather was cold, the discussions inside certainly weren’t. Moderated by Danielle Koval, we were fortunate to gain advice, wisdom, and more from Jennifer Bailey, a Director of PM at 84.51°, Lydia Henshaw, Head of Product at Alchemy, and Mike Varona, Lead Consultant of Thought Works.
Here are few of the biggest takeaways shared with PMs of at all levels that evening.
Many professional services firms have one or more of the following growth strategies:
· “Productizing” existing services
· Creating more scalable, renewable service offerings
· Building or buying a software platform to extend their service offering
· Creating “FILL IN THE BLANK as a Service”
These product-minded growth strategies are attractive.
Yesterday I had the honor of speaking with a group of local leaders about how to create more inclusive work environments (thank you, GCHRA!). We spent the morning discussing how diverse teams offer the ‘trifecta’ of great product management: more innovation, better problem solving, and greater customer empathy.
This past weekend I had the opportunity to speak at ProductCamp Cincinnati about helping more women succeed in product management roles. My recent trip to the annual Women in Product conference inspired me to start a local discussion about how to increase the number of women in product leadership roles.