Unless your product is used only in the US, you as a product manager should make sure that you are listening to the “global” voice of the customer. Customers in other countries typically have vastly different needs than customers in the US. Localization of your product is something you should account for in the very first release if you know that your product will be sold in non-English speaking countries. Even if your first release product launch plan is limited to the US market, you should make sure that R&D accounts for localization such that when you do decide to sell in the non- English speaking world, you will not have to rearchitect your product. Localization is not cheap, nor is it easy to implement as an afterthought.
You as a product manager should also plan on visiting these customers to understand their requirements before you build the product. Even users in the English speaking world have different needs – assuming that customers in the UK have the same needs as those in the US would be making an assumption to your own detriment. One way to figure out who or how often to visit non-US customers is to look at the percentage of established customer base (or potential market for new products) in the major geographic market segments. Thus, if 45% of your revenue comes from the North American market, 30% from Europe, 10% from South America, 10% from Japan then you should plan on visiting customers (prospects) in these countries using the same ratio. You should then use market segmentation based on verticals to figure out which specific customers to visit.
In my experience, on-site customer visits in countries outside of US/Canada are best arranged through your local rep. This will help you overcome the language barrier and also driving in these countries. This will also help you establish a better rapport and expectations with the aid of the local rep who is more in tune with the local culture.
In certain countries like Japan, it is difficult (if not impossible) to have high level discussions on the customer’s goals and tasks. Often, you meet with folks in the trenches who use your product everyday as opposed to management folks and hence your discussions usually revolve around a laundry list of specific enhancement requests. You should try nevertheless to set expectations and send them a discussion guide long before the meeting so that they know how you would like to structure the meeting. Here is where the local reps can really help overcome the language barrier. After all, whatever you want to send to the customer will need to be translated before it can be send.
Listening to the “global” voice of the customer is not easy and not cheap. But it is something you cannot afford to neglect if your product is sold internationally. With some careful planning, it can be done. If you are going to do this for the first time, make sure you budget enough time, money and resources for couple of “learning trips” before you can fine tune to get the most out of these international visits.
You have decided to get out of your office and embark on the journey of discovering unmet needs of customers by talking to customers and listening to them express their unmet needs. One of the pitfalls to avoid is talking to the same customers – customers that you know very well, those that that love your product – and then claiming that you have gone through the motions of talking to customers. If you do this, you will end up making a product that meets the needs of the few.
You have to keep rotating the customers you talk to. You cannot be talking to the same customers over and over again. Find customers you have never visited, new customers who have just bought your product, or customers who have been using your product for a long time. You should be prepared to listen to customer who may not have all good things to say about your product. In fact bad news is the best good news you could get from a customer visit, because they are actionable pieces of information you could take back and get fixed. But, bear in mind that just because one or two customers told you that they liked something or absolutely hate something in your product, it does not mean that the whole world shares that opinion.
What has worked me in the past is making customer visits something I do all the time throughout the year. I try to be out of the building one day a month visiting two customers during that day. Make it part of your working culture. If you are going somewhere attending a conference or on a pre-sales call or to visit some particular customer, try to find other customers in the area that you have never visited and extend your stay by a day and visit them. This lets you justify the travel expense you would have incurred anyways.
Good sources for names of customers you could possibly visit include:
- Your tech support
- Enhancements database (if you have one)
- Your sales organization
- Existing customers (they always know someone else that you could visit in their area)
- Prospects database
Figure out your objectives of doing the customer visits (what are you trying to accomplish) and then try to figure out who you need to talk to. Then make sure more than 50% of those you would talk to would be first time customers who you never talked and listened to.
I have found this picture to be very hilarious and after having talked to different people working in different companies, I am led to believe this is very true in a lot of companies. (I give the credit to the original creator of this picture whose name is unknown to me)
To avoid the above situation, in my opinion a product manager has to do three fundamental things:
1) Thoroughly understand the customer problem, rather than taking what the customer tells you at face value. Need to do a deep dive with the customer using the concept of Five why’s. While doing this, you need to make sure you need to involve your engineers/qa etc. or take the time to educate them about the customer problem that needs to be solved.
2) Engage the customer throughout the product development process to ensure that you are building what he is really looking for. My mantra is that it is never too early to show anything to your customers. Sign NDA’s if you have to, but engage them early. Get them to review specs, let them play with early code. The whole idea is to know if you are building the right thing, that you are rowing the boat in the right direction. The boat could be leaking water at this time because it is not finished, but you want to make sure that you are building the right boat and rowing it in the right direction.
3) Educate other departments in your company about the customer problem and why you are creating this product/service so that they can align their tasks with what you are trying to do.
Customers are wishing someone would listen to their needs and concerns, as opposed to talking to them. You sales people, your marketing people, your competitors and everyone else is talking to them about the products they should buy. But companies that are successful listen and observe their customers. So before you call or visit the next customer, commit to listening. I sometimes write “Don’t talk” as a reminder on my note pad so that I constantly remind myself to shut up and listen. After all, we have two ears and one tongue, but unfortunately the latter gets used a whole lot.
There are couple of active listening techniques I use all the time:
1) Paraphrasing – After the customer has told you something, repeat back to the customer what he just told you in your own words. This serves two purposes – tells the customer you were listening and also makes sure that you did get the essence of what the customer told you
2) Followup questions – Ask follow up questions based on what the customer told you. This again reinforces to the customer that you indeed were listening and interested in knowing more about what he just said.
Remember that if you indeed listen to the customer, you will also be building trust and rapport with the customer. Not many people do this and hence you will be the one the customer remembers. After all, it is all about people relationships and not about products. Happy listening !!
It is very typical while talking to customers that they ask you for a very specific enhancement. As a product manager, you should make sure you do not fall into this trap of accepting that the solution proposed by the customer is what they want. Customers are good at what they do, but cannot be considered as the best people to design your product. As a product manager, it is your job to do a deep dive and find the real pain point for which the customer has proposed the said solution.
This is where the concept of Five why’s come in. I believe this concept has its roots in the six sigma philosophy (though I am not sure about this). Nevertheless, the trick is to ask the customer why he is proposing a solution. Keep asking why’s until you really arrive at the root of the problem. It is not necessary that you may have to ask five why’s or that you have to stop at five, but the idea is to make sure that you keep probing until you fully understand the customer’s real problem that needs to be solved. Some simple examples on 5 why’s can be found on the isixsigma site.
Before you do this, I have found that it is important that you let the customer at the start of your interview that you would be asking some basic questions (or the why’s) during the interview. Let them know that this is only to make sure that you fully understand their problem. The last thing you want the customer to think is that you are questioning his/her judgement or that you getting defensive based on their input. So I always make it a point to tell this to the customer right at the outset (lay the ground rules first to make sure everyone is on the same page).
Once you truly understand the problem, you can engage the smart people in your development team to come up with the best possible solution to solve the problem. Be ready to be surprised that in some cases, the solution proposed by the customer has nothing to do with the real problem. In fact, in some cases it may even make the customer’s problem worse. You are the expert in your product and it is up to you to figure out how to solve the customer’s problems in the best way.
As a product manager, you could be asked to visit customers to help close a sales deal or to trouble shoot a customer problem along with a technical support person. None of these visits can be considered as part of your effort to listen to the voice of the customer. This is because in either of these cases, you role is to overcome the customer’s objections to close the deal or to find workarounds to the problem faced by the customer. In both of these cases, you are not listening to the unmet need of the customer, you are trying to sell or get your product to work. You are the one who is doing the talking.
When you visit customers to listen to their voice, you should be listening and not talking. Human beings cannot do both of this at the same time (sales people may think otherwise !). When you are visiting customers to listen to them, your role is that of an explorer. You have to keep your eyes and ears open. Customers do not always tell you the whole story, not because they are withholding information, but in many cases sometimes they themselves do not recognize the pain points they have. It is up to you as an explorer, to ask the right questions and to get the customer to tell you their real problems (not solutions) that if solved would create a product differentiation for your product.
Whenever you start talking to users whether it is face-to-face or over the phone, first of all make them feel at ease. Users tend to be a) skeptical whether vendors trying to sell them something int the guise of a conversation and b) fearful of exposing their ignorance of the product you are talking to them about (you hear them say”may be I am doing something wrong” or “I am sure I am doing something it was not designed to do” and so on).
To make users feel at ease, do the following things at the start of the conversation
1) Tell them that you are not a sales person (ie. if you are not) and that you are not trying to sell them anything. You are trying to get their honest feedback about your products so that you can make it work better for them.
2) Tell them that you want to hear both the good and the bad news about the product. Hence, tell the customer not to sugar coat anything. You are not here to defend anything about your product but to make sure that you get honest feedback from them about your product. However, make sure that if the customer blames your company for some issue that is not under your control, do not ratify (you are hearing only one side of the issue), but acknowledge that you have noted down the issue and you will make sure it is brought to the attention of the right people in your company who can resolve the issue to the customer’s satisfaction.
3) Once the stage is set, start with some softball questions. Not everyone likes to talk especially about your product. So ask them to talk about what they know best – their business and their products. This prevents them from starting the discussion with a laundry list of enhancements, but at a much higher level. After all they are ONLY using their product to get better at their business. Hence this helps you to understand their business processes, how your product fits into their processes and then allows you to slowly move the conversation towards pain points, unmet needs and then gradually bringing the focus to your products.
I have used this technique over the last several years and I have found that it works very well to build the rapport with the customer.