Why you must meet with customers ?

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Can you imagine that the genius who described customer’s needs, never met any customer? Not a single one?
Awkward question! One might therefore wonder why I ask.
To unveil customer’s need is the essential mission of the product manager. Being the customer’s voice in his organization, the product manager must deliver a useful and usable description of customer’s real needs.
However, I know many product managers who spend less than 10% of their time with customers. How a product manager can be credible when he is interacting with less than 2 customers per month?
For robust marketing, I always require product managers I work with, to build their own customer understanding.
How?
Product managers must meet with customers:
Despite we are in the digital age which simplifies and amplifies the search for knowledge, the face to face interaction is still the most important way to discover the true life. To understand the personas all along the life cycle of your product, you will spend time with a lot of them.
Hence, I explain hereafter the reasons for which Product Managers must meet with customers, and what should be asked.

What are you looking for ?

A product manager is a treasure hunter. His obsession is to collect quantitative and qualitative information.

Quantitative information.

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The web is a goldmine for quantitative data. Through a few searches, using proper keywords you can access to financial reports, companies presentations and videos that contain a lot of quantitative data. Moreover, there are information companies which are competing to sell the market data you may need. Just to name a few : IHS, ARC, or MarketResearch. I list more in this page.
Searching for numbers takes time, but most of this task can be done using internet, in the comfort of your office.



Qualitative information.

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Let me phrase it simply :
those are all data that can not be given as a number.
The qualitative information are the key outcomes from customers interviews. They are coming as results of opened questions (mostly), using the magic of the 5 W and H. 
What, Why, When, Where, Who, How.


A poem to remember

I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.

 Rudyard Kipling in his “Just So Stories” a poem, accompanying the tale of “The Elephant’s Child”

Keep this poem in mind, you will never forget that the 5 W and one H tell you everything your know.

What a product manager must know ?

There are two priceless knowledge’s delivered by a product manager.
– The market understanding.
– The customer needs.
We all agree that market understanding is the result of quantitative data analysis. This helps to size business opportunities, attractiveness and accessibility.
But for customer needs, there aren’t any publication, any figures, any list of verbatim. 
The only way to learn about needs …. is to meet the customers!
Product Managers must meet with customers!

What are you looking for ?

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First of all, remember that you are not selling. You are discovering customer’s needs and pains.
Secondly, you are learning by listening to the customer. So just shut up and let them speak. The art of the marketer, the product manager, is to ask the useful opened questions and to reword when needed.
Hereafter is a list of  questions you will adapt depending on the context.
However, do not simply read this list of questions when interviewing a customer. You must do some homework, preparing your interview guide and adapt it depending on the context.

Who is the customer?

That’s the first understanding you have to build wen meeting a customer.
It’s not about knowing about his life and hobbies (not yet! You may come to this later. When your relationship is more of friendship). It’s about understanding about his business and his organization.
The best way is to ask him or her.

  • What is/are the activity of the customer ?
  • In which market do they act? Sell?
  • What is their organization structure? Who’s who?
  • What are their decision process? Who decides and how? Who influences the decisions and how?
  • What is their business figures? their business health?
  • What are the geographical areas of their business? What is their export ratio and why?
  • Who are their competitors? How do they fight against their competitor? Why are they better than their competitor? Why are they different from their competitor?

What are the customer needs?

Above all, that’s the product manager’s mission.
You can ask directly. The answers seldom helps to discover the real needs.
– Dear Mr Customer, what do you need from us?
– I’d like lower prices, higher quality, higher performances, better delivery services ….”

Those are not needs!
Most of the time the answers are only what the customer wants and it does not give any clue for creation of innovative offer.

The needs and pains can only be discovered when you explore the full life cycle at your customer’s :

How do your customer work?
  • How do you decide to create? Invest? Buy?  something new … Why?
  • How the purchasers work? Their tools, habits, preferences, like and dislike? Why?
  • How the designers work? Their tools, habits, preferences,like and dislike? Why?

Remember, it’s easy to observe and ask for each personas: the tools they used ( hardware and software), their habits, their preferences, their like and dislike. You just need to be on your customer’s sites.
IRL as gamers would say.

Listen to each and every department
  • How the engineering team works? Why?
  • How the blue collars works? Visit workshops, spend enough time to observe the workers. Come back if the time is too short.
  • How the supply chain is operating? Upstream? Downstream? Warehouse? Why?
    Visit the warehouse if there is one. You’ll discover more about habits in regards to used brands and products. As well as it will give you knowledge about handling stuff.
  • How their after sales and customer support are working? One more time, what are the tools they use, their habits, their preferences, their like and dislike? Why?
Opportunities to discover more

This list of questions is a simple guide to help you to discover your customer problems, pains … and workarounds.
Interviewing customer to build you understanding and discover needs is also impacting the interviewees. As a matter of fact, your customer will naturally discover that he needs some solution to untold issues, and may ask you about your proposals and ideas. But remember, you’re not selling or promising! You are learning! That’s opportunities to tell to your sales team, and opportunities for another face to face meeting when you have a new offer to be challenged and tested.

Learning customer’s needs is also coming from opportunities you meet everyday. When you commute to your workplace, when you travel for business, when you meet new strangers at your fitness club…There’s always discoveries with people you talk to. 

What is the customer experience?

Lost? Confused? Unclear?
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An interview with customer is also delivering some insights about his experience. His experience with your company, his experience with your offer, his experience with your competitor.

How is your customer aware of your offers?

How does he receive information?
What the sources he uses to search for information? What type of information?
Ask him to list the documents and media he is looking for? what for? why?
How are they easy to find? How are they easy to use? 
What is he doing when he does not find what he is looking for ?

That’s an opportunity to understand and test your documents, the promotional collateral’s, the catalogs either printed or digital, the technical documents and user guides. How are they used? By who when, where and why?

What is he buying? How is he buying?

Asking for an exhaustive list of products and solutions he is purchasing, it’s not enough! You will ask also:
Whom from? Why? What is missing?
How is he satisfy with what he is buying? Why?

Here you ask for more details about his satisfaction. Covering  pre-sales support, offer quality, delivery service level, pricing and values, etc.

The 5W and one H list would not be complete without asking more about how:
How is he buying? From outlets and shops?online? How could he describe the two experiences? How can he define the most efficient and enjoyable way of buying? Why?


Hunt for feedback

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A Customer interview is also a great moment to get feedback about new ideas, prototypes, even existing offers.
You may ask about your offer features, to check if you deliver the minimum viable product. In this case you ask about what the product is doing.
More important is to ask what the customer is using the product for, and why. His answer will tell you about the real perceived values.
Learning what the customer is doing with your offer can help you to jump to quantified interests: values pricing, projects and business opportunities.

When you get a customer who agrees to test your offer, whatever this is an existing offer, a prototype, or a field test, asking for his feedback face to face is of great value for both parties. Do not replace this face to face interaction by an impersonal and inhuman questionnaire form. Never!

More

Listen
Listen
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In conclusion, Meeting with customer must be the obsession of every product manager.
That’s the only place where the real life happens. Where you can discover and experience.
That’s not easy?
It’s never easy if you are not prepared. The minimum is to write your interview guide. Not a questionnaire to be filled, but a step by step guide to help you during interviews.
Moreover, if you work with customers in different countries, having an interview guide means that you can give it some weeks before the meetings, to you local colleagues. Then, they can localize it and run the interview, with your support, within the native language of the customer. That’s proficiency!

We could talk during hours and days about customers visit. This short article is just an introduction.
Do not hesitate to share your comments and suggestions with me, I’ll be more than happy to update this article with your feedback’s

References.

This article is built from my 20+ years of experience and from web searches which I’m please to share the links to.
It is also the result of discussions I recently had with one of my good friend, Christian Pillot, and I’d like to simply thank him.

Links :
Who Is Your Customer?
by Filip Duszczak, CEO at Growthlab pl.

The 4++ times Product Managers meet B2B customers
by Phil Hornby, Product Focus Associate and Independent Consultant.

The rising importance of Product Managers in a digital transformation
by Emily de Vale, Marketing executive at UcaDO

10 Weekly Habits of Product Managers That Make a Big Difference
by Gabriela Araujo

Explaining user research to skeptics 
by Cameron Spilman, Co-Founder and Managing Director at Paper and Co-Founder, organiser and mentor at legup.social



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