Times are tough, budgets are being cut, there is no travel money to visit customers. Oh no, the sky is falling, how am I as a product manager going to listen to the market or get customer input on some of our ideas?
1) Get on the phone: Times have not become that bad that we no longer have phone connections. So start dialing? Call some customers and ask them if you can have 5-10 minutes of their time. As for 10 min, if the conversation is interesting, the customer will give you more to continue talking to you. Humans love to give their opinions, the mistake we make is not asking for them.
Yes, it takes a lot of dialing before you get hold of someone to talk to? What is the alternative? Not talking to anyone to understand what is happening in the market?
2) Use on-line meeting tools: On-line meeting tools are just awesome. No more travel delays, don’t have to miss time with the family and the list goes on. If you don’t have a GotoMeeting or a Webex account, get one for your company. They are very cheap compared to a plane ticket. You can easily share your screen with your customers, even let them test drive. And to make it even more interesting, any number of people (developers, QA etc.) can watch from your end without spending an extra dime. Guess what, now they you do not have to convince them about usability or functionality issues, they get to see it themselves and get to ask questions to the customer. Can it get any better than that in terms of reducing resistance to change something?
3) Send out open ended surveys: If you don’t have an online survey subscription – get one. I strongly recommend Surveymonkey ($200 for an entire year, unlimited surveys, unlimited responses). Then send out surveys to your existing customers with open ended questions like “What impact has the current economy had on your budget?” or “What is the biggest business issue that is keeping you awake at night?” or “If there is one thing you would change in our product what would it be?” – don’t ask them questions like “Which of these are important to you?” – to mean that is leading the witness. You can get such quantitative data later. Get qualitative data first. At the end of the survey, ask the question “Can we contact you to discuss this further?” If yes, ask them for your contact information. Now use this to do 1).
4) Travel locally: Do you have people you can talk to locally? I am sure you do. Visit them. Yes there could be some geographical bias (especially if you are on the east or west coast), but hey whatever information you can gather is better than driving your product strategy blind.
5) Double up on your travel: Let us say you convinced your company to send you to a tradeshow or a conference? Can you visit your customers in that city by staying an extra day? Stay at an economical hotel (not the Ritz or the Hyatt) but exercise your budgetary sense and kill two birds with one stone.
There is no hurdle that you can overcome to get in front of customers. You just need to be more creative and innovative. More creative you get, more valuable you look to your company and in this economy that is not a bad thing.
Again, remember humans love to give their opinions, the mistake we make is not asking for them.
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