Customer Visits – Do’s and Don’ts

I attended the Product Camp Boston over the weekend and shared what I have learnt doing over 300 Customer Visits in 10 countries (US, Canada, Japan, UK, Germany, Netherlands, India, China, South Korea, Taiwan).

Customer visits can be the best qualitative method to learn the most about your customers/prospects – stuff you will not learn from surveying them. But this is only if you do them right. Based on experience doing 300 of them in 10 different countries, I would like to share what has worked and what has not.

Here are the slides I used.

Customer Visit: 2 creative ways to get a budget

Times are tough, budgets are being cut, there is a travel ban in companies, so as a product manager, how do you get a travel budget so that you can get out of your office for on-site customer visits? It is hard, but here are two creative ways you can make it work.Getting budget for customer visit

1) Think local - It is one thing to walk into your boss’s office and try to convince him/her that you have to fly to Hawaii to do an on-site customer visit. More eyebrows will be raised out of suspicion of your desires, no matter how relevant your product is to the Aloha market. It is a totally different and easy sell, if you want to ask permission from your boss to visit your local customers. Do you have customers within a 75-mile radius of your office that you could visit. If yes, what are you waiting for? If not, do you have any within a 200 mile radius that you could drive to? Yes, it could take 3-4 hours to drive to get there, but by announcing that you are a creative boot-strapper and that you are willing to even drive 3 hours to better understand customer needs, your management will very likely appreciate your initiative. Day-trips are cheap because there are no hotel stays, no expensive dinners or flights involved. Even in companies where travel budgets are tight, I am sure there is still a few hundred dollars to support a product manager’s day trip to a customer site. And if there isn’t, then your company probably does not believe in building products that are in-tune with customer needs or might be in deeper financial trouble than you think and you should start looking for a new job.

2) Piggyback - Are you scheduled to travel for any trade shows? In which case, most of your travel expense is already a sunk cost. Do you have any customers at or near the place where the tradeshow is going to be held? If yes, extend your stay for a day or two and visit those customers. The incremental cost to do this will not be much and approvals are easier to get. Piggyback on that planned trip to do customer visits. Are you going to go on a personal vacation, traveling for a wedding? Is it possible for you to extend your stay for a couple of days and mix in some business as part of your trip? If yes, ask the company to pick up the tab for your extended stay. Get creative and make sure your management knows that you are going over and beyond what is expected of you, to make sure that the products you build are in-tune with customer needs. It is such employees who will be valued the most when push comes to shove.

Does this make sense? How have you managed to do a customer visit during the tough economic times?

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Image: Courtesy of piperreport.com

Death by a thousand paper cuts ….

In my last post, I discussed the benefits of doing an on-site customer visit where you get to observe customers/prospects use your product or competitive products to get their job done. In my experience doing these visits, I often discover what I call “death by a thousand paper cuts” issues. These issues are essentially annoyances that your users have to put up with when using your product. By itself, each of these issues will sound trivial. If your users call you up to complain about any one of these issues or to propose a solution, you could easily laugh it off as trivial.

But when you are on-site observing these customers, you will notice that these trivial issues quickly add up to cause significant loss of productivity for your users, especially when your users have to encounter them each and every time they use your product. But these to me are the slam dunk features – they are so trivial and hence are usually very easy to fix, but when you fix them you will be able to significantly improve the user experience. Your customers will notice these small improvements because they will reap significant benefits especially if these issues were in the way of a frequently performed task.

I have had many instances where such simple fixes have generated the loudest applause from the audience where as the big feature we were so proud of was met with very muted applause (to our chagrin, if I may add). Have you experienced something similar?

Thoughts?

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Five reasons why customer visits “rock”

I am a big fan of customer visits – ones where a software product manager visits customers on-site and observes them using your or competitor’s product. Now why do this? What are the benefits of doing this over talking to the same customer/prospect over the phone, while at a conference/trade show or doing a survey etc. Here are the 5 reasons why I find a customer visit trumps other market requirements gathering techniques:

1) Customers misstate their pain points: Yes, they do. But not because they want to mislead you. But because what customers tell you is often very different from what they do. For example, let us say you are on the phone and ask them to walk you through the different steps they do to complete a particular task. They will tell you what they can remember. When they articulate these steps they usually tend to remember the ideal way they do things or the way they are supposed to do things. But this is often not the way they end up doing things. There are always quirks, there are often painful detours which you will never get to know. These painful detours could be a gold mine for usability issues to solve such that the customer’s life becomes a lot easier when using your product. customervisit

2) They don’t want to look stupid: Usually customer phone calls have multiple representatives from the customer side and often folks with varying responsibilities and varying levels of expertise of your product. It is difficult for someone who is not as good as using your product admit that it is very difficult to do something. Here is a typical scenario:

Bill (a new user who is struggling with or learning your  product):  “You know I wish your product was easier to use when it comes to  doing <insert one of your product features here>. I use this every day and every time I use it, I either lose data or the performance is very slow.”

John (Mr. Power User who is also on the call):  “Oh Bill, that can be easily done. It is because you don’t know about feature X. I will show you how to do it after this call.”

Do you think Bill is going to tell you any more of his pain points? He shuts up from there on and all you get to hear would be from the Mr. Power User, mostly things that are useful for the power users. Don’t get me wrong. Mr. Power User could be the most passionate visionary you want to tap into or could be the most opinionated, smooth talking person who pretends he knows it all. You have to be understand which of these two you are dealing with. The above scenario is difficult to do over the phone, but easier to do when you are meeting them in person (because you can choose to meet in private with Bill or ask him to show you how he uses your product).

3) Surveys: Good data gathering tool when you are ready to do quantitative evaluations, but only to augment the qualitative data gathering you have done via customer visits. Again when responding to survey questions, customers will answer on how they think they are doing something vs. how they really do it. Surveys typically do not capture the real pain points customers experience. The customer also tend to propose solutions when responding to survey questions as opposed to explaining the real problem that needs to be solved. Survey responses by their very nature are monologues and are not a conversation.

4) Customers do not know what they do not know: Humans quickly get used to doing things in one way that it becomes second nature. Once you get used to something or you are too close to the problem – you lose the objectivity. By observing customers in their native habitat, you are able to observe all the inefficient things that they do by second nature. By observing these things and by solving them, you would provide solutions to problems that the customer did not even know he had. You get respected for your ability to look out for the customer.

5) You get to see the customer’s “native” habitat: Where does the customer spend his time when he is working? A nice cushy air conditioned office? Or a dump that is next to the manufacturing floor where it is noisy and dusty as hell? How computer savvy are they? On one of my customer visits, I visited a customer for whom Ctrl-C and Ctrl-V were major revelations. And he has been using the computer for a long time. It is very easy for us when sitting in our offices to assume that our customers are computer savvy. What are your typical customers like? Ones that wear suits to work? Or ones that are in shorts and flip-flops?  How often do they get interrupted when trying to use your product? All of this will help you build up the customer persona you are designing for and also understand where your product fits in the customer’s working life. None of this is possible to do via customer phone calls, surveys or even while meeting customers in your offices or trade shows.

Thoughts?

How many customers does a software product manager need to visit/interview?

As software product managers, we are chartered to unearth painpoints by interviewing customers/prospects. But how many do we have to talk to before we feel comfortable that we have talked to enough? How many is too many?

I have always used the following guidelines which I picked up from the great book “Customer Visits” by Edward McQuarrie (If you have not read this book, I highly recommend it. I consider it the bible on how to do effective customer visits). His research shows that interviews of

  • 30 customers in the right market segment will identify 90% of the needs
  • 20 would probably identify 80-85% of the needs
  • 12 will identify 70-75% of the needs.

I typically start with 5-10 customers and see if I am already seeing convergence and then decide if I need to probe any specific areas even more by talking to more people. Make sure that you have randomly selected these customers from the target market segment and that you are not talking to same 5-10 everytime you need to do customer visits.

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You want to talk to customers – ask me, I was a customer once …

Have you heard this one before – I have – internal pundits claiming they know what the market wants because at one point in time (read “eons” ago, before your market segment even existed), they used to be in the customer’s shoes.

“Hey, I used to do product design”

or

“I used to be a salesman”

or

“When I used to run YYYY department”

they say ….

I have found a quick counterattack for this -

“Great, when did you do that?”

“In 1997, I used to work at XYZ Co.”

“Hummm, 11 years ago – so you mean to tell me that the world has remained stagnant and nothing has changed in those 11 years – did I hear that right? (OK, not exactly in the words above, but you get the point).

That usually stops this “we have answers here in the building” or “the way I did is how the world works”.

Yes, there are certain product decisions that you have to make drawing on your past experience, but saying that we know what to build because I was a customer once, is nothing but a recipe for failure – especially in the high tech arena, where the way you did it last month is probably not valid anymore.

It amazes me how many companies claim to be customer driven, but then they limit their product managers from traveling because the travel budget is tight, but on the other side the product development budget is a big leaky bucket funding products no one will ever want to buy.

Where do your customers get information?

When interviewing customers to determine their needs, take the time to also ask them where they get information that keep them up-to-date in their profession.

1) Are there organizations that they regard in high regard that a recommendation from such organizations is considered valued?
2) What magazines do they read frequently?
3) Do they have a blog?
4) Do they read blogs? Which ones?
5) Do they read or contribute online discussion forums?
6) Are there places which your customer absolutely disrespects or would not want to have any association with?
7) Do they read analyst reports – like Gartner, Yankee Group, IDC etc.

    You want to find out where they hang out professionally online and offline. This is because if and when you build a product/service that solves their needs, you want to make sure that the new product/service is promoted well where your potential customers hang out. So, there is more to learn in customer interviews than just the unmet needs – take it as an opportunity to profile your customer very well.

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