Getting Feedback You Need to Define/Refine Your Product
Henry Ford almost certainly never said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.” But the point is correct, nonetheless.
If you ask customers straight out what they want, their answers will be incremental suggestions to improve what they are doing today, at best. For example, if a customer fills out forms during their workday, they might have suggestions to complete forms faster. It is highly unlikely they will suggest an alternative business process that would eliminate the forms altogether. This is simply the way most of us are wired. Understanding this point demonstrates why many product managers and entrepreneurs struggle to get valuable customer input when designing new products and services.
Ask the Right Questions
Most of us have been taught to ask the customer what they want. The easiest way to do this is to create multiple choice surveys and questionnaires. We craft the questions and offer options that could solve the problem. This is problematic for several reasons. First of all, by doing this, you are framing the solution in way that does not present the problem from the customer’s perspective. When presented with such a questionnaire, the customer will pick the best options, even if none of the answers address their problem. More importantly, the questionnaire assumes you understand the problem and are unsure how to solve it. This does not enable the customer to offer any insights besides picking from your pre-selected (but possibly flawed) options.
Case in point. A number of years ago, I was engaged to work with a young startup building a product designed to help organizations plan and deploy data networks. An outside agency was enlisted to survey potential customers on a wide variety of product feature dilemmas. For example, customers were asked which elements of network design planning were most challenging, such as sourcing networking components, verifying components were interoperable, and calculating network load, etc. The questionnaire was extensive and was given to a broad range of companies, in different vertical markets, and of various sizes.
The startup analyzed the results of that survey by tallying up the results and calculating a score for each answer. Based on the results of the survey, the startup built a product prototype that was then demonstrated to each of the survey respondents. Surprise, surprise… not one of respondents wanted the product. Why is that? Two reasons; the survey made broad assumptions that didn’t enable the customers to accurately provide feedback. Secondly, the results were simply tallied up and averaged without giving precedence to the more insightful customers.
But if asking customers what they want or need doesn’t work, how can you get the input you so desperately need to make sure your product hits the sweet spot?
Seek Out Editors, Not Authors
It is important to understand that while most people are not good writers, they are good editors. That means if you ask the right questions the right way, you will get valuable answers. One way to do this is to ask open-ended questions. But not through questionnaires. You need to interview customers. This is the most practical method to get the information you need to build your product. Of course, it is harder to interpret the results of open-ended interviews, and they are also susceptible to biases, like the confirmation bias, by which you give more credence to customers who agree with your initial assumptions. So, when you interview customers, you need to do it right.
Here are several suggestions to get the results you need to ‘do it right the first time.’
- Interview the customers face to face (or at least perform video interviews) so you can gauge body language.
- Start with a short definition of the problem as you see it. Gauge the customer’s response. Does your message resonate? Often customers who agreed to provide feedback are polite, so they won’t disagree with you outright. You need to read between the lines and use your emotional intelligence. That’s why visual feedback is so important. You should be able to see body language that indicates your message is ‘off.’
- Consider that the customer may not see a problem at all, or they may see it in different terms. Probe for more information about how the customer business process works to locate the disconnect. Be sure you are on the same page before moving forward. For example, if you are building a product to help salespeople track daily sales activities, make sure your customer feels they have this problem. If not, try to probe for related pains. If you can’t identify a problem, move on to another customer. If you can’t find enough customers that have the problem, you might be solving a problem that doesn’t exist. It is better to know this early on, before you invest a lot of time and effort building a product no one wants to buy.
- Next, present your solution in broad terms. Describe what you plan to do to solve the pain you have just uncovered. For example, if you want to solve the salesperson’s problem, describe the business process flow and explain how the person would interact with your solution, including how it will interact with existing tools like CRM and project management software. Make sure the flow makes sense to the customer before moving on.
- Be sure to incorporate customer feedback into your ensuing questions. For example, if the customer said your approach wouldn’t work, probe to identify why and figure out what would work. This line of questioning helps uncover critical gaps in your plan. This is the stage where you will likely uncover the golden nuggets that provide the missing details you need to complete your product definition.
- Ask open-ended questions but provide a framework. In our example, you could ask the salesperson to describe how they spend a typical workday. As they answer, ask follow-up questions to clarify. Ask, “what if” questions. For example, ask “what if you could automatically get activity notifications prioritized by likelihood to close business? How would that change your daily routine?”. Try to get the customer to imagine the new experience and see if they get excited. Encourage the customer to ask you questions. Turn the interview into a dialogue. When you sense excitement, you will know you are on to something.
- Finally, remember that not all customer feedback is created equal. Identify those customers who really have a pain and would invest in your product. Put the laggards and tire kickers aside so they don’t cloud your judgment.
It goes without saying that doing this right requires practice and experience, so work with people who can guide you and coach you to do it right the first time. If you would like to get a sample list of customer questions, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.