What Your Customers Won’t Tell You

How my boss taught me to really listen to our customers
Photo by Luca Bravo on Unsplash

In my first role outside of R&D, the one which eventually led me to product management, I reported to the Director of Solutions of the company, a guy called Raviv. Raviv was a seasoned manager with many years of experience. He was already a seasoned manager when I got my first managerial role back in 2000. He wasn’t always an easy boss, he worked around the clock and always wanted things to be perfect. And he taught me a ton.

It took me years to realize how much I learned from him, and unfortunately, I didn’t get to thank him in person since he passed away before I had the chance to.

One of the things Raviv was obsessed about, is do’s and don’ts when you talk to customers. As a newbie from R&D who didn’t have much face time with customers before, I felt Raviv was almost paranoid in how much he wanted to prepare me for each meeting. Eventually, I realized everything he said was gold, and I was lucky to get such thorough training which most people don’t get.

Raviv practicing his bike-riding hobby. Another thing he did wholeheartedly, like everything else he was engaged in.

One of the things Raviv taught me was how to listen, and it also included how to respond. Or better yet — how to NOT respond.

Raviv always preferred to end the meeting the moment we had all the information we needed and get back to the customer with a thought-through response only afterward.

Taking the time to think through the response allowed us, of course, to answer more responsibly and return a better answer.

But Raviv didn’t leave it at that. His process of listening continued long after the meeting has ended.

After each meeting with a customer or stakeholder, we would set time to sit together and discuss our response. Raviv started each of these discussions with the same question: “so, what did they actually tell us?”.

The question wasn’t about the words they used. It was about the underlying messages — sometimes clear and sometimes hidden in what they said, their body language, how they reacted to certain questions and also the things they didn’t say.

To get to fully understand our customers, we needed to analyze everything listed above. We spend a good chunk of our discussions speculating and trying to get to the bottom of what they actually told us — in words and in a variety of other ways.

The decisions we took and the response we gave were based on our understanding of what they were trying to say (including all the hidden signals), not necessarily on the words they actually said.

Why am I telling you all of that?

Because this capability of getting to the bottom of what people actually need, even if they didn’t tell us explicitly, lies at the heart of the product leader’s work.

In my work with product leaders in a variety of companies, I see a different pattern these days. Everyone knows we should be data-driven. Everyone is seeking validation and answers from potential customers and stakeholders. But I too often hear “I asked them, but they didn’t say what they needed. So what should I do now?”, or even “but I gave them what they said they wanted, why aren’t they happy?”.

Well, that part of figuring out what they really need is on you, not on them. They are not product people. They can only talk in their language and represent how they think. The subtle art of getting to a deeper understanding of what they need is your job to master.

I can’t possibly include in a single post everything you need to know and what to do exactly to get to fully understand your customers. Moreover, this is much better achieved in an ongoing mentoring process like I got from Raviv and I offer my customers today — on-job training with real problems to solve together.

But you can start right away with the habit I learned from Raviv and mentioned above:

After each customer meeting, take the time to reflect on the meeting. Preferably do it not immediately afterward, give things some time to sink in.

If there was someone with you in the meeting, do it with them — a discussion in these cases is better than thinking alone.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What did they actually tell us?
  • What did their body language imply?
  • Which questions resulted in a stronger emotional response, and why?
  • Which topics were they engaged in, and which were they more reluctant to discuss?
  • What does it mean?

After you have a potentially deeper understanding of what they actually need, there is an important validation step that you don’t want to miss. It doesn’t require talking to the customer again. It requires a reality check on your side.

To do it, you need to ask yourself this:

If they really meant <what you think they meant>, would they talk and respond as they did?

If the answer is “yes” and it all makes sense, you are good to go. You can now make decisions based on this new, deeper understanding of their needs, even if they didn’t describe them explicitly.

BTW, the same method works great also with your managers, investors, peers and any other stakeholder. Product leadership starts with the ability to really, deeply understand people.

My free e-book “Speed-Up the Journey to Product-Market Fit” — an executive’s guide to strategic management is waiting for you

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