If I’d asked people what they wanted, they would have asked for a better horse….. Henry Ford
If you are a product manager or product leader- the easiest way to get the job done is speaking with your customers and collect their requests. After all, they are the ones that pay for your salary so just make them happy. Right? Not always.
Henry Ford, the man who invented mass production of cars, summarized his product management philosophy in one sentence, acknowledging that asking customers for product ideas will usually yield ideas for improving the status quo.
Nevertheless, saying that you should not listen to your customers (or that you should listen at all times) will be an over simplification of a complex question. In fact, the type of dialog you ought to have with your customers and prospects depends on the stage of your product:
- Idea on a napkin: when your product is nothing more than an idea on a napkin, the type of dialog you should have with customers (potential customers in this case) is around validating the pain point you are trying to solve. People tend to discuss their idea of the solution, instead of making sure that the problem they solve is actually a problem for the target market and that it is painful enough for customers to reach to their pockets and pay. For example, Microsoft tried to go after QuickBooks with its small business accounting product and failed flat on the face . It was all about ease of use to use but customers never thought that ease of use was a big enough issue with QuickBooks.
- Mockup: when you have something to show go back to your customers and ask if you solved their problem or not. Focus them on what is already in the product and ask them to identify critical gaps only. Don’t open it up to a free form wish-list since you will get more than you can ever deliver…
- Got a product: This is the trickiest part: most product people will talk to their first customers and ask for feedback. This is the right thing to do but is not enough. Your first customers are in many cases a random collection of people you stumbled upon and happened to like your product. They do not represent mass market yet. Listen to them but also speak with lost opportunities, and non prospect/customers that you can invite for interviews or focus groups. This will create a much more balanced picture, talking with the most important customers: the ones that have not signed up yet… It is also important NOT to create a master list of all the requests and rank them by importance or number of customers that asked for a feature: try to create a story out of all you have heard, and mesh it with your vision and ideas coming from other worlds. For example, it took 10 years after Google was lunched for some of the ERP vendors to add free text search option to their products. Customers that got used to the tree like search offered by all ERP products in the past, never thought it was wrong until offered with an alternative.
- End of life: it is unfortunate, but many product people work on products that add very few new customers but enjoy a huge install base. If this is your case, don’t be innovative- all you want to do is make your current customers happy and you will do that by simply doing what I said not to do in the paragraph above: take the list, rank it and choose the most popular requests.
So, you always have to talk to customers- you just have to learn to listen differently depending on where you are in the product life-cycle.