Don’t (simply) listen to your customers

The case for blasphemy in Product Management

I regularly meet and hear from product people that swear by Eric Ries’s lean startup movement, product managers that really believe in product development via continuous customer validation. They’ve often amassed 100s of hours in customer interviews and research around their product. Customer needs and validation is what drives their product backlogs. These are some of the smartest people I know, doing textbook product management.

Excellent, one must say — after all isn’t customer validation the cornerstone to building products that customers love (and will pay for)?

Here is another observation that is worth mentioning. Only a handful of the product people above have been successful in creating brilliant products that their customers love.

For the majority of them, all that lean, hard work and continuous customer validation has not translated into breakout product adoptions. Despite all the right early signals from reference customers success remains distant.

Why might that be? What’s going wrong ?

Flawed customer validation is often the culprit. It is a common pitfall with lean product management and here’s how you fall prey to it.

1. You think you are listening to your customers, except not really

As a product manager, your job is to listen to your customers, get to know their problems and then build a product that solves it .

Now, here’s the challenge. Very often customers will not articulate their problems and needs very well. Often their real need/problem lies elsewhere, and what they are articulating instead are higher level manifestations of that basic need. I usually call this the Level 0 need.

Level 0 need is the root of your customer’s needs, and the one that customer actually wants you to solve, except they don’t articulate it.

If you are not catching the Level 0 need, you are not listening to the customer, at least not carefully. Understanding your customer’s Level 0 need is the single most important thing you can do for your product’s success.

As an example, for IoT powered products, such as a wi-fi security camera — the Level 0 need is 100% internet connectivity.

If you are building a security camera, you HAVE to make sure your product GUARANTEES connectivity every time the customer wants to connect to it via the internet — That’s table stakes.

On the other hand, you might have the best looking materially designed mobile app, or powerful Machine learning algorithms in your camera to identify if that person at your door is a friend or a foe — but if the security camera cannot stay connected to the internet then none of that fancy stuff matters.

So, if you are not even identifying our customers’ Level 0 problem despite 100s of hours of customer interviews, then you are not really listening to them, are you?

2. You are ONLY listening to your customers.

Going by the recent trend of customer-centric product management, what I am going to suggest here might smell of blasphemy, but its not.

Don’t just blindly listen to your customers asking you to implement features & solutions — instead invent solutions that will really solve their problems. Inventing solutions for the customer is your job, not the customers.

“Companies that only listen to customers and don’t invent solutions for them , die.” — Jeff Bezos

Blindly adding features to your product based on customer feedback is one of the biggest reasons why so many products fail to grow despite extensive product discovery and customer validation sessions.

Admittedly, I myself have been caught in this trap at times, resulting in knee jerk solutions that (a) did not really solve a customer problem & (b) didn’t scale very well.

Interviewing customers is an art

It is well researched that most people are not their real selves when they are being interviewed in formal settings, and what they tell you during interviews will not match up with what they would really do under a different set of circumstances. People don’t like to be specific,

For example, most people that run 2–3 days a week will generalize “I run pretty much everyday”, when asked about their running habits. Its not because most people are liars, but because they are prone to generalizing or handwaving things unless you probe deeper.

Your job is to dig deeper and get really specific inputs from the customer to help design a product or a feature.

Handwaving solutions to customer problems is dangerous and plainly implementing solutions without strategic and tactical considerations is recipe for failure. That is the reason why many products with seemingly robust feature sets have a very difficult time finding traction and scale beyond their reference customers.

Again, I am not for once suggesting you should not listen to your customers or strive for customer validation — in fact I strongly believe that not listening to your customers is a surefire way of building a crappy product that nobody wants.

What I am saying is that listening to your customers’s problems and validating solutions alone does not guarantee product success . Add to that mix, carefully thought out and well crafted solutions and long term customer centricity — and you have a much better shot at creating an awesome product.

A paying customer is sacred, a potential customer even more so. So don’t just listen to your customers — understand them.

More by Abhishek Chakravarty

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