Lead on Purpose

Promoting Leadership Principles in Product Management

Three reasons to visit customers

6 Comments

It goes without saying that professionals—in any industry—want to understand the market in which they sell, and the people who are buying their products or services. They want to know what drives business.

This idea comes up quite often, especially among product managers. In a recent post about hiding behind personas, Steve Johnson poses the following question:

Why is it so hard for product managers and marketers (not all of course, but many) to visit customers and non-customers?

I’ve found three key reasons (or excuses) why product managers (and other customer-interacting professionals) find it difficult to visit customers and non-customers:

  1. Fear of Rejection: In general people do not like hearing bad things about their products or solutions. It may not actually be fear of rejection, but more a fear of not looking smart and not getting what we need.
  2. High Cost: It costs money and time to leave the office and spend time talking with customers. Travel costs are often frowned upon by travel managers or executives. However, the biggest cost I’ve noticed is the time… away from email and other day-to-day activities. This can seem daunting when the thought of customer visits comes to mind.
  3. Too _____ (many/few) Customers: You fill in the blank. If the company has hundreds or thousands of customers it can seem daunting to visit enough to really know what they want and what they are doing. If the company has too few customers it can appear like a waste of time because the company is trying to diversify and get more customers in different areas than those few operate.

No doubt other valid reasons exist, but these seem to be the ones I hear the most often.

Now I pose three reasons why customer visits are not only good, but vital to the success of a company’s products (or services):

  1. In person = reality: (At least a much closer approximation to reality.) Unexpected information about your product or company always comes out when talking to people in person. You learn things about people when you look them in the eyes. They gain trust in you, which increases the trust you have in your own ability to make tough decisions.
  2. High Cost: Ok, so this is the same as above. While it does cost money and time to travel to customers, the opportunity cost of not visiting customers is, in my opinion, much higher. If you discover only one new idea to improve a product (or create a new product), and that idea keeps existing customers happy and attracts new customers, you have more than paid for the trip.
  3. Discovering Gems: There is something innately valuable about getting out of the office and in front of customers. Ideas seem to flow when you interact with other people. Trade shows are good and definitely bring new ideas. Customer visits do the same, only with more pointed focus on your products and services. Time spent with customers or prospects helps filter out the dross (see definition 3) from your thinking and leads to new ideas that ultimately make your product(s) better.

It’s always easy to find excuses for not getting out and meeting with customers—Jeff has a great post on this—but the reasons to go are far more compelling. And you also get to meet a lot of great people and see some cool places!

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6 thoughts on “Three reasons to visit customers

  1. Hi Mike,

    Really good blog. I just discovered it today.

    Gopal Shenoy
    (www.productmanagementtips.com)

  2. I couldn’t agree more. I just posted something very similar to this on my blog and as a comment on Gopal’s blog (they are related posts, but not identical).

    Personally, I fall prey to problem #2 (time). It’s pretty easy to get swallowed up by meetings, documentation reviews, and all the other daily tasks associated with being a PM.

    I recently set a goal for myself to meet with a customer at least once a month and printed out a list of local customers to start with. When I go to trade shows, I’ll try to work in some customer visits/conversations there, too.

    Not every customer visit garners a gold nugget, but there’s a ton of untapped info out there…you just have to go get it.

    Ivan

    http://www.theproductologist.com

  3. Ivan, I agree that time often becomes the inhibitor to getting out and meeting with customers. You can always find something to keep you busy and the ‘busi-ness’ can drive your life if you let it.

    I love the idea of setting a goal to meet with at least one customer a month. That leads to good habits that will lead to the golden nuggets of information you need to have great products.

    Michael

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