Are You Listening To Your Customers Product Manager?

by drjim on February 1, 2010

It May Seem Strange, But Listening To Your Customer Really Works

It May Seem Strange, But Listening To Your Customer Really Works

Why Bother Listening To Your Customers?

One of the best interviews that I’ve ever read was with Steve Jobs (of Apple fame) in which he scoffed at doing things like focus groups and such in order to get input for the fantastic products that Apple makes. He said that since what Apple is doing is so revolutionary, getting input from potential customers wouldn’t help much because they couldn’t even imagine what a product could do. I do respect Steve, but could he be wrong?

For those of us product managers whose products are NOT the next best thing to sliced bread, just maybe taking some time to talk with our customers might help our products be more successful. I mean think about all of the decisions that we have to make that getting a customer’s input would help with: what we should be selling, what our products should look like (will anyone buy the gold colored model?), what to price our products at, and just exactly where and how we should go about selling them.

In tough times there is another powerful motivation for tapping your customers to act as your product advisors: they sure are a lot cheaper than those fancy high priced, suit wearing, professional consultants that a lot of us normally use. Customers can also deliver something that no professional consultant can: they may actually buy your product simply because they were involved in creating it.

How To Listen To Your Customers

Deciding to listen to your customers is a great idea. Where things start to get just a bit sticky is when you sit down and try to figure out just exactly HOW to go about doing this. The simplest way to start things off is to use everyone’s new best friend: Twitter. Why not set up a Twitter account for your product, advertise its existence to your existing customers and interested parties, and then start throwing product related questions out there. It’s cheap, it’s easy, and it sure can’t do any harm.

Your next step could be to set up a blog to talk about your product. This is a great way to get your customer base to drop by in order to find out what you have planned for the product. A great example of this are the blogs that the Google team have set up for their products.

You can take this one step further and setup online communities. This starts to allow your customers to not only talk with you, but to also talk amongst themselves. Yeah, this can be a little dangerous but the benefits probably outweigh the risks.

If you want to get all formal about it, then you can set up product related forums on your company’s web site where you can allow your customers to contribute and vote on ideas. No matter how you do it, it’s pretty easy to get in touch with your customers.

The Downside To Listening To Your Customers

Before you go running off and start to design your next product solely based on guidance provided by online potential customers, you might want to hold on for a minute and give it some further thought. As powerful a force as this may be, there are some drawbacks to listening too closely to what your customers have to say.

The first big issue is that simple fact that the folks who are willing to talk to you online may not be a good representation of the people who will eventually buy your product. I’m sure that the product managers at Coke got lots of feedback from people who liked the taste of New Coke, but that turned out to be the wrong group of people to be asking.

A much more subtle drawback to allowing your customers to have a big voice in the creation and marketing of your product is the fact that by doing so you may be stifling internal creativity. It turns out that the more democratic you make the product design (or marketing) process, the less people are going to be motivated to contribute their ground-breaking ideas and will instead op to go along with what the crowd is saying.

What All Of This Means For You

In the end, the voice of your customer is a powerful tool that can help you to design and market your product better. However, you need to have a firm grasp on when you need to listen to your customers and when you need to follow your own ideas.

No matter how you choose to proceed, it’s important to realize that you’re making a commitment if you ask for input from your customers. Once you’ve done this, you need to find ways to show that you respect it and make it clear to the people who provided input how that input is being used so that everyone feels appreciated.

Do you think that your customers have anything to say that would make your product better?

Click here to get automatic updates when The Accidental Successful CIO Blog is updated.

What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

There’s not a product manager out there who doesn’t dream of the day in which their product is the only show in town. Man – wouldn’t that be great? You wouldn’t have to worry about any real competition, you’d just be spending your time working to grow the market. And then you wake up.

Be Sociable, Share!

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Björn Waide February 2, 2010 at 2:27 am

I think its a misconception to believe that Apple is NOT listening to customers. In case of the iPad they were just listening to NEW or potential customers, not existing ones. And yes, they probably don’t use focus groups, but I’m sure they are using field studies. Watching customers is always better than listening to them.

Reply

Dr. Jim Anderson February 5, 2010 at 11:26 pm

Bjorn: you are probably correct. Apple does face a unique problem — their products are revolutionary and so listening to customers would only guide them to create products that look like existing products. For the rest of us mere mortal product managers, a balance between listening to what customers say and watching what they do is what we need to be doing…

Reply

Magnus Billgren February 5, 2010 at 4:05 am

Of course we all listen to the customer or market – no matter what Steve Jobs says.

But it in interesting in how we listen and if we listen to the market or customers.

I believe that Apple is primarily listening to the market, and not limiting it to the customers but to the technology development arena, the trends, the news etc. They are listening – but maybe not to the individual customer.

Right here is the dilemma portrayed by Porter about combining Customer closeness, Product Superiority and operational effectiveness. If you go for product leadership it is hard to listen to customers! (There are strategies for combining the three – Optimal modularization – used by many mastered by very few!!)

I work primarily with B2B product development and management. Thet truth is that most customers knows what features they want but that need to be handled and structured in a different way. Finding the reasons behing the feature is the trick. My key question for finding the future is: What are the forces that makes my value chain and market to change their behaviour? Can you understand that you gain true market and customer insight.

Mereley listening to customers wishes and react can create a small profitable company. But it will never create the great long term succes!

(A method described by Christian Wagner and Albert Hayashi in Journal of Product Innovation – portrays a methodology for new idea generation based on customer inputs.)

Reply

Dr. Jim Anderson February 5, 2010 at 11:29 pm

Magnus: very well stated! I like your point about what questions you ask the customers. I have found that playing the role of a 2-year old child and asking “Why” over and over again seems to eventually help the customer drill down to their core pain point or need. That is if you don’t anger them first by asking the same question over and over again…!

Reply

Leave a Comment

{ 2 trackbacks }

Previous post:

Next post: