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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How much customer “capital” have you earned?

As a software product manager, there is nothing more valuable than having concrete information about the market – customers, competitors, partners – all folks that influence the “external” world outside your office building. No one inside your office is buying your product, but then why do we make a lot of product decisions depending on “I think it should be this …“?Customer capital

Here is what contributes to your customer “capital”:

1) Number of customer visits you have made to your customer locations to understand their business problems, how they use your products and their unmet needs that are not solved by ANY product (not just your own).

2) If travel budget is tight (like now), the number of phone conversations you have had with customers to understand the above.

3) You are on top of what customers are talking about online – discussion forums (your own or other), blogs etc.

I want to emphasize the word “customer” – one who has bought or is likely to buy your product. I want to specifically exclude analysts or such pundits who will falsely claim that they know the current customer problems and where the market is headed.

When you have earned enough customer “capital” and you are confident about the data you have collected, spend it. Share it with your “internal world” (your office) – educate them, make them aware that you are talking to real people who will buy your product. This will quickly stop future decision making based on “I think it should be this …”?.

What do you think?

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5 ways software product managers can listen to the market without a travel budget

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?

This is the time to become even more creative to continue to listen to the market. Here are some tips that you can effectively use:

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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Five guidelines to prioritize feature requests

As a product manager, you are very likely to have more feature requests than what you can put out in a given release. In my case, a good product manager’s job at release planning is figuring out what to eliminate from consideration – you have to make hard decisions – that is what you are paid to do.

Please note that my background is working on products that have mass market appeal and did not have to deal with things like customer funded development – where a customer throws money at you to get a feature that only they will use.

Here are the five guidelines I have used effectively ….

1) How MANY customers will ever USE it?

We held a strong line on this – if the feature was meant just for the selected few (no matter how much money these customers had), we said No to the customer. You may say – no way, it will not work in my case. My reply – have you tried – Have you told your customer No and told him why? – if not try it.

I will give you an example – we had a very well known consumer company in Japan as a customer – they had bought a few licenses but had the promise of buying a whole lot more licenses – they had a lot of money. We visited them in Japan, they visited us here, met with our executives etc. – they tried to push their agenda hard on us and they had all sort of ideas as to how the software needs to work. We questioned them hard to get to the bottom of their underlying problems – why, why, why do you need to do something. They had some great ideas and some that applied only to them – we readily agreed to do the former and rejected the latter with solid business reasons why we won’t do it – not enough customers have the need.

They respected us at the end – their feedback was that we were the first vendor to have grilled them on their requests and were bold enough to turn them down, as opposed to other vendors who were ready to do whatever they wanted. They realized that we were a company that knew what we were doing and our willingness to grill them, told them that we wanted to make sure we were solving their problems the right way.

2) How OFTEN will customers USE it?

Is this something a customer will use once a year, once a month or something they would use everyday. Why does this matter? Remember the phrase “death by thousand cuts” – if something that needs to be used everyday is not supported or is very inefficient to do, it kills user productivity. This may not be something that will make a press release when you launch a new release or in your product demo, but this is something that will get you a standing ovation from your existing customers. Believe me, I have experienced this multiple times where the smallest change scored the highest in customer satisfaction. Stuff such as choosing the right default values, remembering the last used options fall into this category.

Taking how MANY customers would use it and multiplying it by how OFTEN they will use it, you get what I define as Velocity of a new feature.

VELOCITY = How MANY customers will use X How OFTEN they will use

Features with highest velocity should be serious contenders to make into your new release.

3) Will this open up new markets?

It could be something that could be asked by your smallest customer – but it could be this brilliant idea that could change the rules of the game and open up a completely new market for you. You as a product manager need to make this call.

I have been asked in the past if we implemented feature requests only from large customers with lots of licenses – my response always has been – size does not matter, quality of the idea does. This is what product managers get paid to do – take such ideas and make a business out of it.

4) Is this considered table stakes by the market?

There could be features you would need to compete in the market – if you don’t have these basic things, you are not even considered a player. These ones should be obvious if you know your market. For example, pivot tables or charting are considered table stakes for a serious spreadsheet application.

But tread this one with caution – this is where sales can take you for a ride. They will say “we cannot compete because we don’t have this X, Y and Z” and the list could be endless. For those being raised by sales, ask them to put you in touch with customers who would not buy without this feature – then from the customers get to the real problem that is solved by the feature – for all you know, you may have an innovative way to do it, or can come up with one that might change the rules of the game.

5) Is the feature a building block to the real thing?

This could be something determined by R&D (architectural changes) or some other user facing feature that is needed to support the final feature.

If you consistently use these guidelines, you end up making a business case why you want to turn down a feature request – this even works with executives because it is now based on facts and not opinions. After all this, if some higher up overrides your decision, it is not in your hands, but you know you did your analysis.

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.

    Love the customers who hate you

    I have been a big proponent of online communities and social media – I have written at least two blog posts on this. So when the latest Business Week arrived with the main section titled “Consumer vigilantes” I could not put it down. The most interesting article among many dealing with social media was titled Love the customers who hate you. This is a must read. The net net of the article is captured in “…… Now don’t get mad at these people. Instead, help them get even with you. These angry customers are doing you a great favor. They care enough about your product or service to tell you exactly what went wrong. Other customers may just desert you and head to the competition. But these are telling you what to fix. Listen to them. Help them. Respond to them. Ask their advice—and they’ll give it to you.” – Enjoy reading.