The title of this article promises 3 frustrations to resolve. Last week I talked about the general approach for handling frustrations as a product manager, and what to do when you don’t have enough resources. This week I am going to talk about 2 additional frustrations that appeared at the top of the list in Product Management Insider‘s annual product management report.
Challenge 2: Not enough time spent with customers
This is always a challenge. I don’t think I know any product manager who feels that they spend enough time with customers, perhaps because there is always a deeper level of knowledge that you can get to if you spend more time with them. So it’s almost like there isn’t really such a thing as “enough time” when talking to customers.
Still, for most product managers, it’s not a matter of “there is always another thing to learn”, but rather they don’t spend enough time with customers to get to the level of understanding that they need in order to make a real impact and solve the right problems.
Our busy schedule is always a challenge, but I’ve also heard about companies that don’t let their product people talk directly to customers because they don’t see why it’s important. If you subscribe to my newsletter, you will get a few additional articles on this topic that I only share with my subscribers.
On top of convincing your company that you should talk to customers directly if they don’t see the importance of it, there are quite a few things you can do to make it happen.
Make time for gaining customer insights
Start by making it a priority. It won’t happen by itself, the burning day to day hustle is always going to suck you into it. But if you believe talking to customers is important, make sure you make it a priority not only in what you think but also in what you do.
Set aside dedicated time for customer interactions, and make sure that you actually use it for this purpose. It doesn’t need to be too much at first – say one hour a week. But it means one full hour every week that you focus only on that. It’s a great start, and the pace will help you to keep it going.
Don’t worry if you don’t have any customer meetings scheduled in advance. You can use the first slot to send the proper meeting invites for the following weeks. Use some of the advice below to get to additional opportunities to talk to customers, and fill in this slot.
This slot is about customer focus, so if you can’t talk to customers directly, use the time to review any communication you or anyone else has with them.
One of the startups I work with is recording all of the customer meetings. The VP of Product then listens to all the meetings (in double speed, so half the time), and despite not having the opportunity to ask questions, is able to learn a ton on a regular basis. Since this is a company ritual, he is also able to direct the salespeople in terms of which questions to ask in the next call, to get answers to questions he needs to be answered.
Of course, it works better in smaller startups, where everyone understands that they need to win as a team. While even then it cannot fully replace sitting with customers in the same room, it is still a huge step forward. Listening to many calls is far better than not hearing customers at all.
If you don’t have recordings, find other means of communication that you might already have – support tickets, feature requests, emails – even communication that you were directly involved in, looks different after a while and you can learn new things.
Make sure you move in the right direction – on one hand, learn about customers, and on the other hand strive for direct contact with them.
Find customers within your own communities (for B2C/SMB products)
You don’t have to wait for the company to hand you the customers. If you are eager to learn about customer problems, you can find customers yourself. Note that they don’t even need to be actual users of your product, the more important thing is that they fall within the customer segment that you want to attract.
This is harder for classic B2B products because you might not know many CIOs of large companies yourself. But if your product is B2C or B2SMB, most likely you have people around you who are potential users. I have seen many Facebook posts calling for people of a certain segment to meet for coffee and let us into their world. From my experience, people love talking about themselves, so you should get tons of insights this way.
Note: you want to learn about their world, understand their problems and their mindset. Of course, to get feedback on your product you need to meet your real users. But usually, when I tell my mentees to talk to customers, product feedback is not the focus. It’s the customer and problem space where I see the biggest gaps, and these can often be addressed in other ways than talking specifically to the customers you already have.
Make yourself useful for the salespeople
They will get you in front of customers not because you need it, but because they need you to do it for them. In an enterprise sales cycle, for example, roadmap questions are often raised. The opportunity to impress your prospects with a solid roadmap and in-depth answers can help close a deal. Use this as an opportunity to join sales meetings. You will learn a lot (see my next point) even if you only come to present a slide deck.
Once trust is built between you and the salespeople, they will let you in on additional occasions. Make sure you always explain your motivation in a way that helps them help you. For example, if you want to conduct research regarding a certain feature you think about developing, explain to them first why it would be good for the company (and for sales) to have this feature. Elaborate on what you want to learn, and ask them to connect you to customers of a certain profile (you need to know what you are looking for and come prepared).
When they know that putting you in front of their customers can help tighten the relationship and bring value to their customers, they will be more inclined to do that. Make it a win-win situation.
Note: You can use the same approach with customer success as well. Depending on their goals, there are various ways in which you can help them and at the same time help yourself hear customers first-hand.
Learn at every opportunity you have
Many product managers are trying to schedule dedicated customer interviews. While this is an important and in-depth mechanism to learn about customers, it is cumbersome and could create an overload on the customer if not done right.
Instead, or on top of it, I believe that any customer interaction is an opportunity to learn. Sales come in for a question about a feature that we can or cannot do? Great! Ask them to get on a quick call with the customer to better understand their need. You have a roadmap presentation? Awesome! Start the meeting with some open-ended questions about the customer’s world in general, and only then get to your prepared slide deck. Someone is complaining about a problem? Get involved in the discussion to learn more.
Like intuition, knowledge is built in small pieces, not all at once. You don’t have to learn it in one concentrated effort to gain a massive amount of knowledge over time. Immerse yourself in your customers’ world and use every opportunity to learn at least one new thing (or validate an assumption you are currently working with). Over time, you will find that you learned much more than you thought you would.
Challenge 3: Not enough experimentation
Conducting product experiments at scale requires both the right company culture and a massive investment in software and dedicated people. I believe that’s one of the reasons this challenge is so common.
Understand and prioritize your experiments
Another reason though, is that experimentation is talked about all over as “the right way” to move forward. Meaning that if you don’t do it, you are doing something wrong. While I agree in general, I see too many people taking this to an extreme and thinking that experimentation itself will give them the right answers. This is not going to work for you. Instead, you need to understand what you are trying to test – not what is the experiment, but what is the question that you want an answer for and what you are going to do with that answer – and only then discuss the test itself.
I talked about it more in this article about trial-and-error.
Thinking about and planning your experiments in a more structured way, can in itself massively reduce the number of experiments you need to do, and also help you with prioritization since you now understand which tests are most important for your ability to move forward.
Experiments are only one way for data-driven decision making. It is an important one since it helps you test your assumptions and see if they were right. But assuming you can’t make all the experiments you need to, there are many other data sources you can use to make smarter decisions and reduce the risk.
One simple approach is to treat any feature you release as an experiment, even if there is no real A/B testing conducted. You won’t be able to compare options at 100% accuracy this way, but if you monitor the results and make a simple before/after comparison, you will most likely know if you are in the right direction.
It is not going to be as reliable as in a proper A/B testing, because maybe the change you are seeing is a result of noise or something else happening in the ecosystem. But if you can’t conduct proper A/B testing, and you understand that the results are not 100% reliable (honestly, many A/B test results are also not 100% reliable) you will still gain a lot and learn a lot by doing so.
Prepare the features for your testing like you would prepare an A/B test. Ask yourself:
- What do I want to learn or validate?
- How will I measure this?
- What would be considered a success?
- How will I use the results?
Be as specific as you can. It requires you to think and prepare, but this is the kind of thinking that is needed regardless of if you are going to run an A/B test or not. This is simply good product thinking.
Once you have these answers, you might see additional options for getting the specific validation you need, like a survey or even asking the people who meet your customers every day for their feedback. The world around you is full of data, there is always more than one way to get it, or at least get most of what you need to move forward.
Make a compelling case for investment in experiments
As I mentioned last week, if you want things to change, you should act. If you believe the company should invest more in the proper environments and personnel for experimentation, explain why it is good for the company.
Don’t use general statements like “everyone knows this is the right way to do product these days, we don’t want to be left behind”. Give specific examples of experiments that you could have conducted, and how they would have helped the company. Explain what is the financial and strategic benefit – again specifically for your company, and compared to other things the company needs to invest it. It shouldn’t be because the book says so.
Try to make progress in baby steps – ask for a small budget at first to show that it would be ROI positive. That’s the best way to get any additional budget. Of course, that means you have to prepare for it well, but as you might have noticed, this is advice that I believe in wholeheartedly for almost any topic you deal with as a product manager.
To conclude, product management is a profession where you need to own your destiny. It’s hard, but talking about how hard it is isn’t going to make a difference if you don’t route this energy towards action.
I gave some very specific advice for each of the challenges. My recommendation is that you choose one thing that you want to change, one tip from what I shared here, and go make it happen.
Change happens in reality, not in your head.