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During my university days, some friends and I set up a small company which made soup. It was an impressive business, heavily influenced by the stories of Innocent and Ben & Jerrys.
Our soups were handmade using local ingredients, we delivered them fresh by bicycle courier, and our profits funded our own training and employment programme for people who had experienced homelessness.
Owing to its success, we attracted a fantastic group of mentors, won multiple awards and gained national press coverage.
But, it took a cynical customer to put all of this good work into perspective.
The customer in question owned an independent coffee shop, had a commercial background and knew how to run a profitable business. He was one of our most valuable customers, but also someone who was least persuaded by our social mission.
Following a slow decline in his regular weekly order, I wandered over to his shop and got him to explain to me how a successful brand should work. I followed him around as he talked about his lack of space, his staff turnover and the type of customer he served.
His requirements boiled down to two areas, product consistency and delivery logistics – neither of which were areas that I had optimised for when setting up the Bath Soup School Project.
Despite the importance of its social aim, the project’s positive impact was intrinsically linked to its commercial success. For all of the good work we were doing, when it came down to the nitty gritty, we were not actually solving customers’ problems.
Needless to say that this was a sobering, but insightful conversation.
As a product manager, you are responsible for defining a roadmap that delivers maximum value to your customers, in the most efficient way.
There is no shortage of people who want to influence that roadmap, but ultimately if the features you decide to build do not have the desired impact, it’s your head that will be on the line.
You cannot afford to lose sight of your customers’ problems. To ensure this doesn’t happen, you will have to have tough conversations with customers that will give you honest feedback, not those that will tell you what you want to hear.
Although the early adopters, who love what your company is doing, will provide a reassuring level of engagement, it’s the customers who remain cynical about what your product can do for them who will provide the most value.
You’ll need to group your customers based on their level of engagement with your product. This will be particularly clear if the end uses are different to the people who actually bought your product – a situation that is common with B2B sales.
No matter how negative the conversation, speaking to a customer who is not totally sold on the value of your product will give you deeper insight into the problem you are trying to solve.
They will highlight perceived short failings in your product, these may be legitimate and due to missing features or just a misunderstanding of your product proposition. Either way, its valuable.
There’s value in simply hearing the language that a customer uses to describe their job and the problems they encounter. It may be that you need to update the structure and language of your product features to align with this.
If their expectations are beyond the scope of your product, you may need to update the type of user that you are serving or the audience that your company is marketing to.
Needless to say, the more you speak to customers the better you will connect to their problems, but it’s worth mentioning some valuable ways of doing this as a product manager:
Spend time responding to customer support
If you are not already, you should be working closely with Customer Support to identify customers that you should speak to. At Yoyo, I monitor our in-product chat from our customers so that I am aware of what’s being asked and can respond directly to those customers that I believe will be the most useful.
Help out account managers
Attend meetings with account managers that involve difficult customers. Not only will you benefit, the account managers will likely appreciate your support and learn directly from you about roadmap related responses.
Attend initial sales conversations
Attend sales meetings with potential customers. Once again, if only to hear how they talk about the problems that they are facing. This gives you an excellent opportunity to learn from a customer that knows very little about what you are doing.
Cynical customers give you the chance to have tough but incredibly valuable conversations. Make sure that you do not miss this opportunity. Identify ways in which you can increase the frequency of these conversations and you will end up with a better product because of it.