Wade into your Customer’s World

Wade into your Customer’s World


“The one who knows the water best is the one who has waded through it.” – Danish Proverb


I was once in a product development meeting where product managers and engineers were arguing about the merits of one feature versus another. In order to protect the guilty, let’s pretend that one group was promoting the blue feature, and the other was promoting the red feature. The rhetoric sounded something like this:

“If I was a customer, I would want the red feature.”

“In my last company, all our products had blue features.”

“Sure, but nobody bought your products, remember?”

The debate became intense. Emotions smoldered. Nobody was about to lose face or admit weakness. Many things went unsaid as well – such as the secret development work behind the scenes to support the red feature. Finally, the boss posed this simple question, “Who here has spoken with an actual customer this year?” And of course – silence followed.

I submit that your product development teams should do their own Voice-of-the-Customer (VoC) projects to complement the bigger market research effort. As a result, you will have more fun, argue less, and actually build stuff that people want.

Of course, you might have formal market research available. Perhaps a conjoint study, customer satisfaction reports, concept tests, need assessments, etc. But no matter how much you have, your intuition for new product development decisions will always be limited if you have not spent time with customers yourself. There can never be enough research to answer every question that comes up during development. You need intuition – based on actual experience with customers.

At its core, innovation and new product development are problem solving processes. The first step to solving a problem is to diagnose it. To diagnose it, you must experience it. See it, hear it, feel it, smell it if possible. A doctor would never rely on tests alone. Are the eyes watery? Are there marks on the skin? Do the joints move easily? How does the breathing sound? The pulse? The senses are engaged.

You should also use all your senses to diagnose customer problems. Visit them, see them, talk to them, interview them. Gather their needs. Probe for understanding. Perhaps you don’t need to smell them – I’ll give you that. Take good notes and combine this new knowledge with the rest of your market research. I imagine that your company has many product experts. But do they have market experts?

But, alas, you are skeptical!  Perhaps you will insist that you already know what customers want.

I say – maybe. Maybe you do. Maybe there are customer needs that are well understood. If you are a product manager for Weight Watchers, you already know that customers want to lose weight. Fine. But…how well do you understand what is difficult about losing weight? Is losing weight easier or more difficult at home as opposed to vacation? With all the knowledge about nutrition, what challenges do customers really have losing weight? And how do you explain the success of all the “medically-assisted rapid weight loss centers?”  Regardless of your market, there is always more to learn about customer needs. And quite frankly, if you’re not doing VoC work yourself, then how can you be so sure that your knowledge is complete?

Ah, but you persist. You tell me that “Our sales staff knows what customers want. They talk with customers every day.” And so, with their kind counsel, you say that you do – in fact – understand your customers’ needs.

Do you have some information? Sure. But let’s think about this. Ask a sports fan what happened in a game where their team lost. Did they give you all the information? Are you ready to write an objective article from this fan’s perspective? I doubt you would feel very confident that you have the whole truth. Now, imagine that you asked a parent for an assessment of their child’s piano recital. Do you get some information? Sure. Did you get all the information? No way. It’s a horrible idea to use biased data as your only source of truth. Even a GPS system needs multiple satellites to know where you are.

Perhaps I have won you over on that point. But then you tell me that, “We do not have the time to execute our own VoC – so we have to do our best without it.” To this, I will quote the great John Wooden, perhaps the best basketball coach of all time, “If you don’t have the time to do it right, when will you have the time to do it over?” Without enough VoC, your product development team will move very slowly as they argue over whether it should be the red or the blue feature. Or even worse, they will build science projects that do not solve any meaningful customer problems. If you have waded into the customer’s pool yourself, you have a better chance to lead the team away from those hazards.

I think I have now convinced you, but alas, you still do not give in so easily. You tell me that, “We do not have the knowledge, expertise, or experience to do our own VoC projects.” Perhaps you have market researchers within your company – and they have told you that you should not do your own VoC because you don’t have the expertise. They are like grammar teachers – scolding students for beginning sentences with conjunctions or ending them with prepositions. (Personally, I think that a preposition is a great thing to end a sentence with. But, I digress.) VoC skills are like all skills in that practice leads to proficiency. Training and coaching programs can accelerate your progress.  I assure you, with a moderate bit of education and experience, a product manager or engineer can become an effective VoC researcher.

I want to leave you with a final thought: VoC projects are fun! Learning from your customers is a blast. Beyond that – your new knowledge will clear away the confusion from product development. Over time, you will be a market expert as well as a VoC expert. Skills such as interviewing, capturing customer needs, ranking requirements, etc. will enhance your career. Give yourself time to get there and enjoy the journey “wading through the water.”  As the great Zig Ziglar said, “Anything worth doing  – is worth doing poorly –  until you can learn to do it well.”

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