Apr 7, 2018 7 min read

Talking Directly with (Real) Customers

Talking Directly with (Real) Customers

I speak/write incessantly about the importance of product managers talking directly with their users and buyers (collectively “customers”), not mediated through Sales, Marketing, Customer Success, User Experience, or stray notes posted to Salesforce. Direct listening, learning, channeling, empathizing, understanding.

Especially at enterprise software companies, though, I meet product managers who never interview any actual users of their products, and who only meet buyers during sales calls. They get their market information second-hand. They lack a visceral sense of what matters, and can’t speak authentically in the voice of real users.

We all know that a broad sampling of direct users is important, but somehow not as important (or as urgent) as other product tasks at hand: account escalations, rearranged priorities, stories/epics/features, technical spec reviews, launch meetings, budget battles, roadmap presentations, retrospectives, pizza for the team. And enterprise sales organizations raise unique barriers for product managers who want direct/open-ended/honest discussions with big customers.

[For clarity, other employees of your company are not customers. They may be stakeholders or executives, but your customers are non-employees who invest actual money and time in your products.]

But this post isn’t about criticizing individual product managers. I see an anti-pattern across many companies and markets and geographies, which suggests underlying organizational problems. Understanding root causes lets us improve.

Some of the barriers and objections I hear:

  • From individual product managers: eye-to-eye interviews are not a priority; they don’t have time; fear of not knowing how to interview customers; inertia
  • From product teams: no tools, processes or sharing models
  • From sales: they are afraid of product managers messing up accounts; they already know what’s important to customers
  • Marketing: user/market research is a stand-alone activity

As a sometimes-interim Head of Product*, I see all of these as objections as nudge-able: they can be overcome with some combination of pushing, cajoling, logical arguments, metrics, horse trading, reverent waving of business literature, promises of improvement, persistence, and relentless good cheer.  Some tools in my kit:

1. Set expectations with the product management team

As product team lead, I have to make this important, which includes very clear communication and a starter metric. (“Starting next week, I expect each of you to interview at least one user per week. I’ll be asking about this in our one-on-ones.”) Dan Ariely reminds us that what we measure is what we get.  Making this a required activity forces product managers to identify their blockers…

2. Lowering barriers/empowering product managers

The product team will have a variety of reasons why directly interviewing customers is difficult. Some blockers will be serious, some trivial, and some just whingeing. As their advocate (and the person demanding this new activity), I have to help wrestle the hard issues and dismiss the non-starters.

  • “Sales won’t let me talk with customers.” A frequent, serious issue that most individual product managers may need executive-level help solving. See #4 below
  • “We don’t have access to end user contact information.” Unlikely, between support and sales contacts, but someone may need poking and cross-departmental motivation. And we might have to reach through formal contacts to find end users.
  • “Our privacy policy prohibits us from contacting users or looking at their contact information.” More interesting, less frequent. Can we invite contact via social media, user events, personal requests during support calls, outreach in marketing campaigns? Who posts about us in public?
  • “I’m really busy with more strategic things.” Usually the meat of the issue. I help identify some less impactful work, and provide air cover for skipping it. BTW, writing user stories without excellent customer insight is often wasted work.
  • “I don’t know how to do customer interviews.” Fair enough. Let’s review interview basics as a group, pair up on the first few, share insights from calls Maybe hire Teresa Torres to coach the group on continuous interviewing.
  • “I already listen in on support calls.” Great! We should encourage everyone on the product team to do this. But support calls give us a narrow sampling – only existing customers with support contracts, only on issues big enough to justify phone time, usually at the feature or sub-feature level, and missing subscribers who have already decided not to renew. Plus we don’t get to ask our own questions.
  • “The scrum book says I’m never allowed to leave my desk, so I can’t go into the field for face-to-face meetings.” Hmm. We may have a lot of training and expectation-setting to do, or a wholesale re-definition of product roles, or someone is in the wrong job.

3. Rewarding behavior and learning

Carrots are a good complement to sticks. We all want to be appreciated and feel successful. A few ways to reinforce good behavior and incisive observations:

At the weekly product management staff meeting, have each PM share one nugget from a customer call or research activity. Encourage, applaud, smile, be appreciative.

  • Have each product manager put long-form interview notes into some shared folder, then send a two-line summary to their development team and other interested folks. (“tl;dr – talked with customer X, heard raves about new navigation flow but frustration with security configuration. Full interview notes at /prod/interviews/productname/customer-date”)  Their internal audiences will start to notice that product managers really do talk with customers, and can back up opinions with data. And more adventurous folks will read through the complete interview notes.
  • Forward good takeaways to the executive team, reminding them that product managers have a direct channel to the marketplace. (“Execs: Here’s a really smart interview nugget from Caroline, who product manages our reseller portal…”)
  • Schedule time every few weeks for the product team to organize interview observations into groups or segments. What are we hearing across portfolios; who are we hearing from; what non-obvious patterns emerge?

4. Addressing Sales’ concerns and barriers

Sales has its own assortment of real concerns, minor items and whingeing. We usually hear…

  • “Sales talks with customers all the time. Our notes are in Salesforce, so product managers can read everything they need.” Not a strong objection – but product training includes listening politely, being enthusiastic, then responding to both explicit objections and underlying concerns.
    I might come back with “Your account teams capture some really critical information, and my product managers enthusiastically read their notes, but we have a different focus and timeline.” Sales interactions are mostly during initial the selling cycle and renewal periods, not throughout the year, emphasizing budgets, decision-makers, and customer’s stated objections. Product managers do feature deep dives, dig for underlying product issues and Jobs To Be Done, prompt for emerging technical requirements, and ask lots of questions about what end users like/dislike.” Which typically leads to…
  • I can’t let your product managers f**k up my deals. Too risky to give them unfettered, open-ended access to customers.” This is a core issue, which needs a nuanced combination of carrot, stick, and organizational jiu jitsu.
    • Draw a sharp distinction between sales-cycle interactions – first-time sales and renewals – and the vast time between them. Sales teams want product management help during sales cycles, addressing specific deal-driven issues. (We call these sales calls.) In the 9 months between initial close and annual renewal, Product wants to understand what’s really happening with users and buyers, so reaches out repeatedly for interviews or discussions. (We call these learning calls and don’t confuse them with sales calls.) A good agreement would be that product managers help sales teams deliver revenue during tightly scripted sales call – and in return, sales teams step aside the rest of the year for product-driven learning calls.  Quid pro quo.
    • Sales wants to know what happens during learning calls. They are welcome to listen in (but not talk), and/or we’ll copy our notes to them. Sales teams quickly figure out that these calls aren’t interesting (to them), and notes are much more efficient.
    • If Sales is concerned about a specific product manager (once bitten), I’d have another product manager sit in and listen for issues. Or find other ways to validate what’s happening.  Product managers who unintentionally lose deals are benched.

5. Partnering with research specialists

Marketing may be doing its own research around brand recognition, Net Promoter Score, and social media recruitment of testimonials. UX might be testing usability, accessibility, and multilingualism. Product folks shouldn’t get in the way, but are often working on adjacent issues or talking with the same audience. Can we combine outreach/interviews where it makes sense, and be silent observers where it doesn’t? Even better, can we jointly map out research and coordinate customer discussions?

This takes a lot of cross-functional empathy and trust. Every interview or research topic needs a primary goal and lead voice. But stand-alone researchers are often light on product details (delivering just the obvious user comments) and product managers light on research techniques (generalizing from too few non-representative qualitative calls). Lots of opportunities for effectiveness and better learning.

Notice that scolding individual product managers won’t resolve most of the above issues. We work in organizations with narrowly focused functional leadership, complex incentives, mixed priorities, and busy people. If we need product managers to talk consistently with actual end users and buyers (WHICH WE DO), we have to recognize how things work and apply systemic solutions.

BTW, none of these are perfect, or magical, but gets us moving. The journey of a thousand insights starts with a few imperfect qualitative interviews. Then we can experiment, retrospect, routinize, and improve.

Sound Byte

Talking directly with authentic end users and buyers is one of the most important things a product manager can do. But product leaders may need to push organizational and personal blockers aside.  This is one way we can help our product teams be more successful.

* Titles and roles vary: Director of Product Management, VP Strategy, Chief of Services/Offerings, CPO.  I’ve used the generic Head of Product.  What’s in a name?

photo credits from Unsplash: Kari Shea, Headway, Francisco Galarza

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