Product managers are often told they should be the ‘Voice of the market’.

This means being an expert on what current and potential customers care about in your market. This knowledge is vital to creating successful product plans.

But with a bursting inbox, fires to fight and too many other priorities competing for your time, it’s easy to feel disconnected from customers and prospects.

The most obvious channel for information is through your Sales teams. They meet and talk to prospects every day. And yes you should be making sure you learn what they know. However, you’re never quite sure if you’re getting an objective view of the market or just what’s needed to win the latest deal.

Talking directly to customers and prospects yourself is really important but finding the time and opportunities can be challenging.

One behavior we commonly see is product managers acting as though they are the customer. They build the product they want and assume it’s also what their customers will want. Thankfully, many recognize this doesn’t work. For example, what a male, middle-aged product manager developing an online chat product thinks is important probably won’t be the same as the preferences of a female 18-30-year-old target customer.

A better approach is for product managers to put themselves in the customers’ shoes to imagine what might be needed. We’ve seen this work well where the product manager is a business domain expert who’s recently worked in the role for whom they’re now designing a product. There are also other great techniques like personas that can help.

But what if you’ve never worked in that industry or left it years ago – how do you get practical insights on understanding what really matters to prospects and customers?

For those who feel disconnected, we’ve listed some common tools and approaches below and explain why we think they’re useful, along with some challenges and links to further resources.

Roadmap reviews –  face to face interview with customers

These are one-on-one interviews with customers that typically last around an hour. These in-depth interviews are an opportunity to do ‘deep-dive’ on your product. They’re great for getting detailed honest feedback on lots of aspects of your proposition from your target audience.

However, sometimes your Sales teams won’t want you to speak to ‘their’ customer without also being there. Try and find a way to make it happen – if Sales do attend, the review can quickly turn into a negotiation.

It can also be difficult to find customers willing to spend the time needed for these interviews. So, there’s a temptation to run too few leaving you with potentially unbalanced feedback from too few customers. A tip is to try and arrange them at a major conference or exhibition when the customer is already away from their office.

Focus groups – facilitated sessions to get in-depth insights about your product

These are meetings of typically 6-12 people (customers and non-customers) discussing a small number of questions about your product, led by a moderator.

Focus Groups are great for getting candid, relatively quick feedback on product ideas from your target audience. Many large businesses have regular focus group sessions organized by a customer-facing team and you can reserve a slot to discuss your product in a future session. Sometimes they’re included as part of a Customer User Group who meet regularly. But, watch out for vocal attendees who can dominate the discussion.

Additional reading*: Thriving small business

Implementation and operational reviews – in-depth discussions about how your product works

Implementation reviews are in-depth interviews with customers to understand how your product fits into their environment and what they have to do to get it working e.g. any product integrations, process workarounds, changes to their technical architecture. These reviews may be part of the sales process or once a sale is made, however, they provide great insights into the challenges your customers face. A heavy impact on existing processes and systems can impact both the purchase decision and product advocacy.

Operational reviews usually happen on a regular basis in large B2B products once they are in-life. It’s an opportunity for a customer to tell you about any problems they’re having and raise issues with your support team to resolve. As the product manager, you may not be regularly involved however it’s a great opportunity to hear first-hand what customers are saying about your product. In B2C spending a day sitting with your telephone support teams or in a retail outlet is a similar opportunity.

Surveys invite your customers to give their views through online and product surveys

Online surveys are a convenient, easy and quick way to get input from a large number of people on a narrowly defined topic. But there’s a skill to getting the number of questions and wording right. Also, it can be tough to engage non-customers.

Some product managers build simple surveys into the everyday usage of the product to get a constant stream of insights from the users of their product. The trick is making sure it’s not too intrusive.

Additional reading*: Constant Contact, Survey Monkey, Marketing Profs

User groups and user conferences – bring customers together to talk and listen

User groups and user conferences provide a regular forum (with typically a large number of customers) at which you can talk about your product, its current issues, the trends that are influencing the future and any plans you might have. Smaller versions are sometimes known as Customer Advisory Boards. However, it takes considerable time and resources to organize these and they are often managed out of the Sales organization.

In our experience, sometimes the balance is wrong between allowing customers to vent their frustrations at today’s issues at the expense of talking about the future. Both are important and events need to be well organized and facilitated to get the balance right. Try to get on the agenda to discuss ideas and trends that will shape your roadmap.

Additional reading*: Community toolbox

Observation watch how customers behave

Observational techniques let you see how customers really do their job or use your product. They often uncover behaviors customers aren’t even aware that they do and these can be used to influence product direction. Small changes at the product level might make a big difference to a customer and turn an unwilling user into a strong product advocate.

The challenge is that these sessions are time-consuming to set up and run. Also, confidentiality issues can impact participation.

Product usage analysis get information from your product on how it’s being used 

In a world of ‘big data’ too few product managers are getting insight on how their products are being used. Usage analysis can collect data from all your customers, giving a view on what’s working well, what features are used, how often and under what circumstances. If confidentiality is an issue can you collect anonymous data?

In our experience, a big challenge is that the functionality needed to give you the data is often de-scoped during product build. It’s not seen as a priority. Also, analysis tools often lack the sophistication to provide useful insights (Excel spreadsheets still dominate!).

Additional reading*: Google analytics

Prototypes and Scrum product demos – let customers give feedback about your product as it’s being built

At the end of a sprint, you can invite customers to review what’s just been developed. Similarly, if you use a Waterfall/Stage-Gate development approach you can use prototypes at various stages to get invaluable feedback.

Product demos give you immediate feedback from the people you want to buy the finished product. With their feedback, you can ensure that only those features that are valued make it into the final product.

But, watch out for the situation where you get participation from one or two customers whose feedback dominates future plans.

Outcome Driven Innovation (ODI) – a structured approach to understanding customer needs

This structured questioning technique gives detailed insight into how your customers work and a scoring system to help prioritize where the product opportunities are.

It asks customers to identify the things they need to do, and the outcomes each produces, in order to do a good job. They are then asked to rank each for its level of importance and for the level of satisfaction with their current solution.

Almost everyone’s role is made up of lots of small steps, i.e. minor outcomes, which are needed in order to progress toward delivering major objectives. These need identifying and documenting in order for ODI to work. One of the big challenges is finding customers willing to spend the time with you to do this upfront analysis. And, after you’ve identified all these small steps, the second challenge is finding customers willing to spend the time to give good feedback on how they rank each of these steps. That’s why many companies use specialist research companies to help them.

Additional reading*: Harvard Business Review, What is ODI?

Kano analysis – how to decide what’s important for your next release

This structured questioning technique gives insight to things that are essential for the next release (must-haves) and things that would get customers excited enough to buy. It also identifies ‘value’ features which, if included, would make the customer happy to pay more for the product.

It works by taking customers through a list of features being considered for inclusion in a product. They are then asked to rate both their level of satisfaction/dissatisfaction and how closely the product would meet their requirements if the proposed feature was to be included, or excluded, from the product.

One challenge with the technique is in making sure that customers understand what the feature would really deliver and what it would really mean to them. Everyone listening to a presentation on features will have a personal perception of what was being said and will fill in the gaps for themselves on what was really meant. So, sketches, wireframes, prototypes and other tools are really useful in helping participants get a clear and consistent view on what’s proposed. Further challenges are that different segments of users will give different answers. Also getting a group of customers together to do this can be difficult so many teams of product managers do it without customers based on their understanding of customer needs.

Additional reading*: Discovering Kano

Conjoint analysis – using statistics to uncover customer preferences

Conjoint analysis is a statistical technique for prioritizing what customers care about.

Many products are complex and it’s really tough for people looking at a long list of features to be able to say which are most important to them. Take that approach and customers will tend to come back with a long list of priority one features that they’ve not been able to choose between. To break down the task to a more human scale, conjoint analysis simply asks them to rank small groups of features e.g. “Is this feature more important or is it that one?” or to ‘Pick which of these options is most important to you”.

One challenge with the technique is the same as that of Kano – everyone will read the feature name or description and take away a personal interpretation of what was meant. A second challenge concerns the numbers: how many people need to respond and how many questions do you need to ask in order to get reliable answers. Unfortunately, there are no easy answers to this second challenge and that’s why, in most cases, agencies are employed to design and run the analysis.

Additional reading*: What’s a good sample size?How many questions should I ask?

Innovation games – using games to uncover customer requirements

Innovation games are a great way to get feedback about your product. Because the research is structured as a game people get enthusiastic and are also often able to better articulate ideas they might fail to communicate in other formats.

There is a wide range of games that are designed to address different scenarios such as the number of people who can take part, whether they’re physically together, how much preparation is needed and how much time is available.

Innovation games work well in a user group or other customer forum where you have multiple customers or multiple people from the same customer in attendance. They rely on collaboration amongst the participants, good facilitation and people being willing to give-it-a-go however some people might balk at the idea of spending their time ‘playing a game’.

Additional reading*: Innovation games

* The links to additional reading resources work at the time of publishing (please let us know if you find one no longer works). Many of you will be members of local marketing organizations and these are likely to have resources that provide further advice and information.

Andrew Dickenson
Director, Product Focus

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