Friday, August 02, 2013

Do the inefficient stuff

Following up on my last post about making tough decisions, something that I sort of glossed over was the fact that I was meeting with our customers. This is actually not all that uncommon, but it's usually just sales-facing or business development types of folks who do this. In my role, we usually get the customers through a long-ish set of people and what we hear and see is pretty filtered.

Meeting with customers isn't actually that difficult since all it takes is a few emails or phone calls to get it all setup. But more often than not, customer meetings are seen as things to get done later. Amongst the reasons I've heard for not setting up time to meet directly with customers:
  • We've got people in the field who already tell us what the customer wants
  • It takes a lot of time, and we're pretty busy just with our current workload
  • We can get the same info by sending good surveys
  • The customers are just going to complain/talk BS/tell us stuff we already know/tell us to do things we already know we can't or don't want to do

And here are my simple responses to each of these:

  • Those people in the field? They're there to sell. What those sales or bizdev guys are going to tell you about is whatever helps them hit their commit. It may or not hit on things the customer actually wants
  • Sure it takes a lot of time, but if your workload isn't about building something your customers actually want, then why are you working? I guarantee you can find an hour a day (or a week every quarter) to talk to your customers over the phone or in person
  • Surveys are great at getting standardized metrics and track trends, but they're horrible for getting a wide array of responses. The people who respond in-depth to surveys tend to be on either end of the spectrum: They love what you've produced, or they hate it. Do you really want to build plans on the thinnest part of the bell curve or do you want to build something that a broad swatch of customers are going to love?
  • When's the last time you actually heard from your customers? If it's been more than a year, than whatever they told you may be irrelevant. You may have released 2 point releases or changed some of your strategy or timelines. And if you've simply been relying on people in the field, well, then you haven't actually heard from them at all. And if they all they do is complain about your product, it's still better to hear it directly and figure out how to change your plans. And believe me, that complaining isn't just bitching. They're looking for someone to listen. And just by listening, you're going to build extra trust with your customers. They'll stick around longer, give you an extra chance, and maybe even become evangelists of your company since they see you actually listening.
So take some time and figure out how you can get in touch with your customers. It'll help you design a better product. What's more, it'll build a better relationship with your customers which will contribute to even better product roadmaps. This whole way of going about things may seem really inefficient, but in some ways, this is way more efficient than working on something for months or years only to find out at the end of your journey that nobody wants to use what you've created. Those "inefficiencies" may slow you down in the short term, but sometimes, that's really what you need to do. Listen, plan, and build. Then listen again and again.

Here's a nice article on Pando about this topic. It's more specific to small companies, but hits on many of the same reasons for getting in touch with your customers:
Dial up: Why startups should use the phone

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