Remove the unnecessary so that necessary can speak !!

This morning, while walking through Terminal 3 of the San Francisco airport to get to my gate, I happened to notice the design museum display near the moving walkways. The museum is titled “From Prototype to Product: Thirty-three Projects from the Bay Area Design Community“.Behind each display, were quotes of some famous people.

One of them caught my eye – it said ““The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak”. After getting home, I googled it to find that it is a quote by Hans Hofmann. The reason I find this quote very interesting is because it captures what good product design is all about. Designing a good product involves spending more time deciding what features NOT to include than deciding what features to include. I would bet that designers of iPod had all the pressures to add a zillion features to it – an AM/FM radio station, ability to add/edit/delete songs etc. But they did not – because adding all of these features would have destroyed the elegant design. The end product does not do everything, but what it does it does very elegantly. To this day, I would be willing to pay more for a remote control that would do the five things I want to do – play, stop, forward, rewind, power on/off, instead of the other 500 features it has making it impossible to find these features. The office phone is another example. Try doing a conference call.

To do this right, you need to understand who your target user is and then saying no to features that are not needed by target users. You cannot listen to sales, they will tell you that you need everything under the sun. You cannot listen to just your existing customers, they will ask you for more and more features. What you need to do is get out and talk to real people who want to use your product – especially people who have not yet bought your product. Observe them struggle using the current products (your products or competitors) and then figure out what you can do to simplify their lives. It is not easy, but good things never come easy.

Who is a customer?

I was visiting the Nilgiri’s coffee shop on Brigade Road, here in Bangalore when I came across the following quote of Mahatma Gandhi, the Father of the Indian Nation. I thought this was one of the best definitions of a customer that I have read:

A customer is not an outsider to our business. He is a definite part of it. A customer is not an interruption of our work. He is the purpose of it. A customer is doing us a favor by letting us serve him. We are not doing him any favor. A customer is not a cold statistic; he is a flesh and blood human being with feelings and emotions like our own. A customer is not someone to argue or match wits with. He deserves courteous and attentive treatment. A customer is not dependent on us. We are dependent on him. A customer brings us his wants. It is our job to handle them properly and profitably – both to him and us. A customer makes it possible to pay our salary, whether we are a driver, plant or an office employee. – Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi

Keep your customers informed !!

Many a times you may have to let your customers know about some bad news – implementation taking longer than expected, your inability to deliver on a committed feature on time, a bad bug in the just released software patch. In all these cases, be upfront with the customers on the real truth rather than some massaged varnished message. Honesty with customer pays and lets you keep their trust !! But don’t wait till the eleventh hour to break the news. When you get an inkling of trouble ahead, let them know and keep them updated from time to time. Explain to them what caused the problem and what steps you are taking to prevent this from happening again.

There is something all of us can learn from some of the airline pilots in this regard. I have always been tolerant of flight delays when they keep me informed of these delays caused by mechanical failures, weather delays, air traffic congestions. My worst flights have been those where they have kept me in the dark without any information. There is an interesting blog entry from a SouthWest Airlines pilot that explains how he keeps the customers informed. Definitely one worth reading.

Voice of the customer – Tip#7 – Tackling the language barrier

Language BarrierUnless 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.

Product Innovation – what is it really?

“Innovation”, “product innovation” are being used by everyone these days. A google search on “product innovation” returns 169 million results. A search for books on product innovation on Amazon returns over 10,800 books. Sure enough it is one of the most frequently used business buzzword these days. We all have heard phrases like “Innovate or die” – so what exactly is product innovation.

My colleague Rick Chin, Director of Product Innovation and Marketing at SolidWorks (yes, even people’s titles have product innovation in them these days :-)) came up with six criteria (at least one of which has to be satisfied) that can be used as a lens to evaluate possible solutions before they can be considered a product innovation.  According to Rick, these criteria work best when you have a lot of ideas to solve a problem.

Customers will call something innovative if:

1)  If it solves a problem that really matters – Look for a really strong emotion from the customers like frustration.

2) The solution is truly effective – not just effective, but very effective in solving the customer need.

3) Its effectiveness is instantly obvious – this is when customers say “Wow” when they see the product in use for the first time.

4) It is familiar, comfortable, easy to adopt – if the product intimidates, it will not be used.

5) It’s realistic to implement – this sounds obvious, but consider this before starting to implement the solution.

6) It is an unexpected solution – this is what people normally call innovation and the least important on the list.


What to look for in a product manager?

I have been asked quite a few times over the past couple of years in what skills are needed to do well as a product manager. While there is no guaranteed recipe for success as a product manager (a very versatile, wear-multiple-hat role), I look for some specific generic skills in product managers. While I was at SolidWorks, we did not talk to candidates unless they met our baseline for technical skills. So when we did interview candidates, I personally looked for the following skills:

1) Listening skills: As a product manager, you need to know how to listen to your customers. You should have the ability to listen to them so that you can discover unmet needs in the marketplace that if solved can contribute to the growth of your company. To do this effectively, you should be willing to let go of your preconceived notions of customer needs and be willing to discover the real painpoints.

2) Team building and Leadership skills: Are you a person who has exhibited leadership skills? This is because as a product manager you are typically required to lead cross functional teams where none of the members report to you – you have to lead by influence. Do you have the skills to earn the trust of others and lead them along a path that may have ups and downs? A lot of times you are embarking on a journey to uncharted territories. Do you have the skills not only to keep your chin up, but also to carry your team along with you? It is all about relationships folks, not products.

3) Communication skills: Do you have the ability to communicate in very simple terms with a strong passion? How have you sold your business case(s) to internal/external stakeholders? Are you persuasive in your message to make people trust you? Do you have the ability to break down complex topics into simple messages? (none of the “this is the most reliable, scalable, easy to use, next generation product” crap. Can you talk like how real people do?)

4) Your passion: Why do you want to be here? Do you have the sparkle in your eyes? Does your strong passion to build something new show on you? Will you walk through a wall if you have to? Not in an aggressive way, but will you persevere enough to succeed when the going gets tough?

5) Your personality: Are you someone your team would welcome into the existing culture? Again, folks it is all about building relationships and “trust” with your team. Have you shown this at your previous jobs?

For me, I would rather hire someone who has the positive attitude than someone who may be technically the most brilliant. Positive attitude allows one to cross what appears to be insurmountable hurdles and carry your team with you. Lack of positive attitude is cancerous and is sure recipe for failure and brilliance cannot make up for it.

Now do you need an MBA or have studied through online MBA programs to become a good product manager? It depends. I don’t have anything against MBA’s, as long as you still continue to use your common sense to solve problems (I have met some MBA’s that have really made me wonder if they lost their common sense while at business school). The above skills are what I think product managers need to invest in and if they do the rest of the technical/business/financial skills needed to become a product manager can be easily learned.

Top 11 things I learnt at SolidWorks in the last 11 years !!

After 11 fun years at SolidWorks, I am leaving to pursue a new career opportunity. I consider myself lucky to have worked at such an awesome company during a time when it grew from a startup to a force in the CAD industry. In 1996, it was the second job of my fledgling career and I don’t think I could have done it any better. I learned so much during these 11 years, got to contribute to a product used by hundreds of thousands of product designers, worked with some of the smartest people I have met and made so many friends over the years amongst my colleagues and customers alike.

Now it is time to move on and do the next big thing in my career. It is hard to leave a place where I knew so many people who shared the good and bad times during the different business cycles. But I believe that I will never know what I will find next unless I try. It could be the next big success or failure, but the learning cannot continue unless I try. I wish all my colleagues the very best in personal and business success for years to come.

I thought this would be a great opportunity to list the top 11 things that I learned at SolidWorks (yes, there is a lot more than 11) in the last 11 years that will guide me for the rest of my working life.

1. Hiring is the most important thing you do at work and always hire people smarter than you: Team success is what will determine your business success, so why not have people smarter than you working for/with you? If you have to micromanage someone or babysit them to do the tasks, why hire them? Hire slowly and make sure you have done due diligence.

2. A manager’s success is all about making his/her reports successful in what they do: Once you are a manager, it is not about “you” anymore. It is all about your team. Your job is to ensure that you are making your reports successful in their job. You have to ensure that their strengths are fully utilized. You will be judged by your team’s success.

3. You cannot move up in the company unless you train your replacement: You have to make sure that you are dispensable by training your replacement. Otherwise, you cannot move up and take up another position within the company. Pay attention when you are hiring – can your new hire replace you one day? Thanks to Aaron Kelly for teaching me this. I would not have made my move from Product Definition to Strategic Marketing without Bruce Holway.

4. It is all about “relationships” and not “products”: This is true whether it is with customers, colleagues, partners and resellers. When someone buys from you or when your colleagues work with you, you are winning their trust and they are making an investment in you. Trust once broken, cannot be repaired. Relationships you build will outlive any technology or product. In other words, it is all about “people” and not “products”.

5. Only viewpoint that matters is that of the customer: The answer is not in the building. You have to get out and talk to real customers and understand their “pain points”. In fact, none of the people in the building will buy your product, only your customers do. So take the time to figure out what your customers need and then solve their pain points with a kick ass solution. Worry about the competition, but worry more about what customers need. Respect the customer.

6. There is a big difference between products that customers will “buy” vs. products customers “like”: You should only be solving problems that customers are willing to pay money for (in some cases, you make money via the network effect that is generated by solving problems – eDrawings, 3D ContentCentral are prime examples). After all, business needs to make money to stay around (there are no two ways about it !). It does not make business sense to solve problems customers don’t care about. Never get enamored with technology and then start looking for problems that the technology can solve. Do it the other way. Find the real customer problems and then find the best technology to solve these problems and then make money out of it.

7. Be “market driven” and not be “marketing driven”. There is a big difference: Never thought how big a difference adding “ing” to a word could make.

8. Have technical and business arguments with colleagues as long as none of it turns personal: Make sure that all perspectives are considered when devising the best possible solution for a customer’s problem. Have heated technical/business debates if you want, but never ever make any of these arguments/disagreements personal. When you have these disagreements and then make a decision, you at least know that you have considered all possible solutions and picked the one that is the best. After all, the customer does not care whose idea it was, to them the idea came from SolidWorks. Either all of us are going to look like heroes or a bunch of idiots. Which would you rather be?

9. Have meetings before the meeting: If you are asked to present to a large group of people meet with the key stakeholders one on one before your big meeting. You do not want to get ambushed because you did not do due diligence on the material you are presenting. Meet with them one on one before hand and make sure to get their feedback on your thinking and ask specifically for any concerns they may have. You would then have time to do more research to address those concerns or list them as risks. If you do this right, the final meeting should be one of consensus and no “surprises”.

10. Trying and failing is a lot better than failing to try: All successful people have failed more than they have succeeded. No one writes about their failures. Failing to try is trying to fail. Never forget the lessons you learn from these failures. There is no better learning method than trying and failing, but never fail the same way twice. I have to thank SolidWorks for all the wonderful opportunities over the last 11 years to try new things and having the luxury to fail and learn from these failures.

11. Execution is the key to being successful: History is filled with people/companies who had great ideas and got nowhere because they did not execute. Devil is in the details. Many times, flawless execution can compensate for any flaws in the idea as long as you quickly iterate and continue to execute. Execution is the key.

Voice of the customer Tip #6 – Don’t listen to the same voice

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:

  1. Your tech support
  2. Enhancements database (if you have one)
  3. Your sales organization
  4. Existing customers (they always know someone else that you could visit in their area)
  5. 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.

7 ways to tame the email monster

I am sure everyone is inundated with emails these days. We also have become notorious in generating a lot of these emails at work. As product managers, we are constantly required to stay in constant touch with our team members in development, quality assurance, sales, documentation, product marketing, press, PR, customers, partners and you name it.

But is there a way to tame this email monster such that it does not become a productivity killer for us and for others. I remembered a good set of tips that one of my colleagues Graham Rae, VP R&D Operations at SolidWorks (my current employer) had send us way back in 2003. I dug this up and even to this day, these are great tips to reduce the email volume. I still use them and they help a lot.

Enjoy and hopefully you can find them useful. Thanks to Graham for these valuable tips.
Reply to all
This is the number 1 cause of controllable email excess. Most of us are guilty of perpetuating the Reply To All habit without considering the volume of unwanted email we are generating and the potential follow on explosion as the recipients exacerbate it by following up with their Replies To All. You should always consider trimming the list of people you respond to rather than doing an automatic Reply to All:

• Always ask yourself if the entire original distribution list really needs to see your specific response
• Can the distribution list be pruned as the issue comes to closure? For example some people on the list may want to see the first email that defines the issue and the last email that defines the solution or the options – the details in between are not always of interest to everyone on the distribution list
• For general announcements that go to all encompassing distribution lists like corporate distribution lists. Never use Reply to All

Distribution lists
Replying to Distribution lists can generate 10’s or 100’s of redundant emails. Again, consider if the list can be trimmed back:
• Check to see who’s on the Distribution list (double click the Distribution List to show its members). Some Distribution lists are made up of a concatenation of smaller Distribution lists – consider if one of the smaller lists would be more appropriate
• If you have Office 2003 or later, you can click the [+] sign in front of the Distribution List and it will expand to the individual members – you can then delete individual names from the list
• Check to see what Distribution Lists you’re included on that no longer apply to you. This may help reduce the amount of mail you receive. To check this:
o Create a dummy email and enter your own name
o Right mouse button over your name and select Properties. Select the “Member Of” tab. If you want to be removed form a list, select the list to find out who owns it and request they remove you.

Be economical with words
Get your point across succinctly, politely and quickly. Long emails sometimes get pushed off to be read later and may not get read to their end! – a problem if you’ve made your main point in the final few sentences.

Using the To versus Cc list

Many people have their Cc’d email go to a different Inbox folder or use a different color to identify they are Cc’d only. When you send an email or reply to an email, consider moving recipients from To list to the Cc list to help them prioritize their email. You can select and drag names between To and Cc fields.

Consider the alternatives to email that may work faster/better
Most people work better as a team when they get to know each other. Email alone doesn’t create close working relationships. Substituting email by phone calls/face-to-face discussions/meetings or webEx will over time improve overall communication and potentially reduce email. This is especially true if the person is within a few offices of your own.

If an issue is diverging, taking too long to close or the ball has been dropped then a meeting may be the way to go. Short focused meetings may be far more effective at getting agreement and decisions quickly – many times email simply can’t compete with a meeting.

Although our culture is one of fast/immediate response, some issues/questions may be able to wait until your next group meeting rather than having an email discussion

Avoid email for expressing strong emotion/strong disagreement or criticism
It’s easier to be mis-interpreted via email than by the spoken word. It’s usually far better to have these dialogs face to face or by telephone so that your emotion is not misinterpreted and you can have a 2 way conversation in real time. Make personal visits/use the telephone more often – especially if the issue is controversial or there is strong disagreement. Email messages in this situation can do more harm than good. Good working relations (especially across groups) aren’t established via email, they’re established and enhanced by personal contact

Read your email before you send it
• Can it be shortened
• Is it clear and unambiguous
• Is the tone correct
• Can the Distribution list be reduced
• Does it contain needed “calls to action”
• If you disagree with what’s being proposed in an email, offer alternative proposals/solutions
• You have included any intended attachments (surprising how many emails use Reply To All with “you forgot the attachments”)

How true is this in your company?

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.

Software as a service

One of the hot topics these days is the concept of “Software as a service” (Saas). Earlier this decade, there was a lot of hype around ASP (Application Service Providers) and when the dot com bust happened, ASP was one of the victims. Though ASP and SaaS are not exactly the same, many people think they are and call Saas a second incarnation of ASP model. Sucess of services such as has really fueled the success of Saas and everyone seems to be talking about it.

McKinsey recently published a very good article on delivering Saas, which explores the financial, accounting, customer support, developmental and other business and operational implications of Saas. To me, it is a must read for any product manager working in the software industry. The article explores these different implications and calls on all software companies to take Saas very seriously or fear to be left behind. (The article requires registration with McKinsey to get full access, but it is definitely worth the registration process).

Bazaar Buzz – New title for the blog

Well I am not good at naming things and that becomes obvious given how many times I have renamed my blog. It started with “Temple of the customer” – agreed a mouthful, then went to a bland and generic “Voice of the customer”. I think I have finally settled for the new name – “Bazaar Buzz”. Why this name?

Being a marketer, “Bazaar” is what we called the market in India. Given that I am a bring proponent that the market does not live in spreadsheets or fancy powerpoint slides, but where real buyers shop (like the market shown below), I thought that would be a fitting word in the name for my blog. (Picture shown below is from wiki on Union Square Farmers Market)


Then I write about a lot of topics related to product management and marketing and hence the word “Buzz” (please don’t mistake it to represent buzzwords, because I am not a fan of buzzwords).

Powerpoint turns 20

Powerpoint Well, the big news this week is how the software that is respected, loved, hated all at the same time depending on who you talk to, turned 20 years old. 20 years after Robert Gaskins and Dennis Austin rolled out Powerpoint 1.0 for Macs in 1987, Powerpoint remains the most popular presentation software used by everyone from business folks, students and even kids these days.

While Powerpoint is widely blamed for the degradation in presentation skills (read my earlier post on “Presentation skills – do you care about your customers” on how to buck this trend), it is still a very useful tool. I use it very effectively for my presentations (only when needed) and just like any other tool, you cannot blame the tool for its misuse. The way you use it is up to you.

More details on Powerpoint’s ride to a ripe old age can be found in a recent article on the Wall Street Journal.

Business Card Innovation

As I had mentioned in one of my previous posts on Incremental Innovations, you come across some simple product innovations that make you say Wow, why didn’t someone think about that before?

This weekend, I attended the TieCon East Conference at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston. There I met with Alan Chachich, President of BreakThrough NPD. I have known Alan for the last couple of years. When we were catching up on stuff, he handed me his new business card and that is when I discovered this great little product innovation that to me makes a lot of sense and solves a problem I have always had. The back of his business card looks like that shown below (click on the image for a larger view)

Alan’s Business Card

Brilliant !! I meet so many people during customer visits, user conferences and other industry conferences. I collect business cards from many people and in many cases I have follow up actions that I need to take. Or in other cases, I want to jot down topics that I have discussed. This is exactly what Alan has done on the back of his business card and in a very professional way. No more messy notes that I leave on the card or elsewhere. I will admit that I don’t know if this is Alan’s original idea or not, but this is the first time I am seeing this and hence I have to give some credit to Alan for it.

Hear the “user vocabulary” – Voice of the Customer Tip #5

How many times have you read marketing brochures, datasheets etc. shook your head and really wondered what the product that is being described is meant to do? Marketing collateral is full of “flexible, scalable, reliable, robust, next generation, empowering, state of the art, ….” – you get the idea. I have always wondered if the folks who write such stuff understand it themselves let alone their customers.

One of the key things to do while listening to customers is making note of words, phrases they use – the vocabulary they use to describe things. If you don’t understand these terms, ask them to explain. Once you start seeing a trend of what words are commonly used, incorporate these terms in your product UI, documentation, in your presentations, in your marketing materials and so on. Communicating to your customers using terms they are familiar with helps you to immediately connect with them. Companies that do this will be able to differentiate themselves (agreed that this is not going to compensate for an inferior product). It is amazing to me how the vast majority of these companies don’t do this. Communicating benefits of your products to your audience is going to be so much simpler if you pay attention to the user vocabulary. It is such common sense to me to do this, but hey who is it that said that common sense is not that common.

Voice of the Customer Tip #4 – Practice active listening

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 !!

Voice of the Customer – Tip #3 – Five Why’s

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.

Voice of the Customer Tip#2 – Role of Explorer

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.

Voice of the Customer Tip #1 – Start with softball questions

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.

Listening to the “Voice of the Customer” – Tips

I have been working with customers for the last 11 years in determining their unmet needs and then creating products/solutions to solve those unmet needs. Over these years, I have learnt a lot about how to do these customer interactions while I have made several mistakes. I have decided to share these tips via my blog by writing on one tip per day over the next several days.

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