How many customers you should meet?

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Can you pick a number?

You are Product Marketing Manager; your role is to build and deliver robust market understanding. More than your role, it’s your duty!
You know why you must meet with customers: Qualitative information are coming from customers, both existing and future potential. Therefore, your one and only way to collect qualitative data from customers is to meet them.
Yes, but how customers you should meet?
Is 10 or 50 per year the right numbers? More?
Is it linked to your current task of delivering customer’s voice into an offer creation project? In this case, testing with customers along the project cycle require 10 or 20 or 100 interactions?
Just pick a number, write it down, and follow me through the following post to get the answer.

You are not allowed to fail

can not fail
You can not Fail
Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay

I always said that we must give room to failures, that’s one of the best ways to learn. However, as far as collecting customer’s voice is concerned, the Product Marketing Manager is not allowed to fail. Delivering usable customer’s voices, needs and pains, is the key value of his role!
A lot of new offers, products, software or services, are failing. Why?
– In 42% of cases, just because the offer requirements are not clear or change along the project.
– In 37% of cases, it’s coming from a wrong analysis of markets and customer’s needs.
These failures impact negatively your sales volume and your profitability.

Remember Philip Kotler’s quote:
Marketing is the science and art of exploring, creating, and delivering value to satisfy the needs of a target market at a profit.”

Therefore you have to interact with a lot of customers and users to deliver the right understanding that will lead to create the right values.
How many customers? How many users?

Start with your target

What is, or are, your target?
That’s the compulsory and earliest stage of your marketing strategy. If it has not been worked out, it means you don’t know who your customer are. Then you can’t say how many you must discuss with.
It’s never too late to create your segmentation and select your winning targets. (I’ll write about this in a future post).

Let’s say it’s done!
Great! How many market segments have you selected to be your winning segments?
There are more than 700 industries represented in NAICS coding!
Let’s imagine that your wise targeting ends with 20 market segments only.
Therefore you simply need to meet 20 customers, opinion leaders from each of your target segments.
Right? Wrong?

The actors of your targeted segments

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You believe 20 feedbacks from opinion leaders of your targeted market segments is enough? Of course not!
It goes without saying that you have to meet and understand the real users of your offers. But it’s not enough!
Between you and the final users of your offers, there could be several intermediary and influential players. They may act as prescribers, architects, designers, machine manufacturers, integrators, contractors, installers, or distributors. It’s 8 different influential players in this short list. You need to know who they are and what they do in the playground of your business.

They are all interacting directly or indirectly with your offers. Meaning that they can be satisfied or not with your proposals.
Therefore their opinion matters.
You have to collect the feedbacks of those 8 key influencers within your 20 targeted market segments. How many customers you should meet?Yes, it’s 160 influencers to be added to your interviews list.

Where are your targeted customers?

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Groups from different geographies or different cultures have different expectations and different habits. Those differences matter.
Therefore, you must list your key targeted countries and know why they are different from each other.
There are several criterias that are impacting your customers.
Their countries are mature? Emerging new economy?
What is their level of education? What is the impact of their social environment? What is their lifestyle? What is their behaviour toward e-commerce? 
We could list hundreds of questions to qualify the differences between geographical areas. The fact is: those differences are impacting the needs and expectations of you targeted customers.
That’s not only the impact on the features of your hardware or software, but the impact on the languages, on the working habits, on the purchasing channels …

As example, if your geographical target is made of

  • European Union (28 nations),
  • North America (USA, Canada, Mexico) without forgetting that some states in USA can bring you different requirements,
  • and key countries in Asia (China, Korea, Japan, Singapore, Indonesia). 
    Even if we reduce the number in European Union by key influencers (North, South, France, UK, Germany, East), this short list is already 14 areas that can bring differentiations to the feedbacks.

Previously, we count 160 companies or organizations to meet with.
With the geographical variable that I just introduced, how many customers you should meet?
Now you must meet with 14 x 160 = 2240 companies.

The number starts to be huge. You may say that some companies are global, or that 10 key geographical areas is more reasonable.
Well, with 10 countries, it’s still 1600 interviews and observations to run.

Can do less?

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I wrote ” only 20 targeted market segments”, but it’s huge and that’s always a big challenge even for large organizations and multinational companies.
Let’s decrease to a limited 5 market segments (meaning that your targeting has been done professionally and is indisputable).
You still have 10 countries to cover.
And I recommend you to select 5 types of players that are influencers or deciders.

This is still 250 clusters in your list.

Saturation

The next question is: how many interviews for each cluster ?
What is the number to reach till you don’t receive any additional insight?
This is named saturation.

Usually, from the 10th interview in a homogeneous cluster, you are not getting much new information. To ensure reaching the saturation level you must meet a number of customer higher than the theoretical number 10.
By experience, I would recommend 12 to 15 interviews for each homogeneous cluster.
In the previous section, we count 250 homogeneous clusters, 15 interviews for each, how many customers you should meet?
Then you have to run through 15×250=3750 interviews to capture the qualitative information from your customers.

Regulations

Why do I suddenly introduce regulations in this story?

Simply because they influence how your offer must meet the user’s need.
Moreover, if you go to the market with a new technology, you will need regulations and certifications authorities to define the rules to fulfil. Even better, you must influence and co-write those rules; or influence to be part of committees that update existing rules
Those authorities can be global or local. Sometimes, it’s at the level of a state or a city.They can be public or private organizations, and I count all lobbying association (such as green lobby) within the private organizations.

I will not number those influencers you must meet. It always depends on the market you play in, the geographical areas you target, and sometimes the applications you serve. 
Nevertheless, they must be added to the list of interactions and meetings you must hold to complete your description of market need.

From theory to real life

Practice

I gave you a basic principle to estimate the number of interviews and/or observation you must do in order to bring robust customer understanding into your organization or project.
15 per cluster.
Cluster=homogeneous group of personas (market segments, influencers/deciders/real users, geographical/cultural)

So, the right number depends on your target, which you have to describe perfectly in your strategy and business cases.

A last example,How many customers you should meet?
[15 interviews] x [5 market segments] x [3 types of influencers/deciders/real users] x [5 geographies] = 1125 interviews.

Collecting customer information through interviews, groups meetings, and observation is the daily task of the Product Marketing Manager. The usable knowledge cannot be built overnight from one single shot interviews session. It takes years , that’s what we name the Experience!

Running 1125 interviews to feed a project with robust customer’s understanding is impossible, knowing that a project lead time is often defined before deciding of the content (cruel but real paradox).
This is why the experience of the Product Marketing Manager is of paramount importance. I mean years of experience fuelled with a lot of customer’s interactions.

The most valuable moment is the one you spend with customers

Consequently, you must organized your available time for customers (do not go to useless meetings and stop staring at your e-mail inbox all the day long).
Depending of your country’s law, you’ve got about 48 working weeks per year.
Trying to meet 4 customers or influencers per week (that’s a small number), leaves you 3 to 4 days each week for your important internal tasks ( meetings, reports, workshops, trainings, …).
As a result, you’ll do 192 customers interaction in one year (I’m very optimistic).
Then you’ll need about 6 years to complete the theoretical 1125 interviews and observations!
 Undoubtedly, nobody will wait 6 years for you to bring customer’s voices.

You must de-multiply and delegate your efforts. You’re never alone, lead and involve your colleagues sitting in other countries. Be curious of everything, knowledge is coming from your day-to-day observations and discoveries. The Product Marketing Manager is a treasure hunter.

Finally, take notes, shot pictures and videos. Write and share your customer’s meeting reports. If you keep your experience in an hidden place of your brain, that will be of zero value.

As a consequence and a corollary, you are not a Product Marketing Manager because you get promoted to the title. But you become a Product Marketing Manager when you accumulate and share decades of useful and usable customer’s experience.

Special thanks

Special thanks to Philippe Metayer who taught me and coached me several times about this topic.

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