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by • January 14, 2015 • UncategorizedComments (0)1995

How Product Managers Can Make the Most of Customer Visits

Curiosity about people and their problems is the heart of product management. Fundamentally, a product exists only to solve a customer’s problem. On site visits can provicustomervisitde invaluable insight by providing deeper understanding of how your product fits into your customers’ lives. If you want to become the “voice of the customer,” make it a regular practice to get out of the office and visit customers in their native habitat.

Finding Customers to Visit

Think carefully about which customers you want to visit. Do you want to visit your top customers –the ones that spent the most money or a customer from a particular market segment? Before visiting a customer, you should have a good sense of how this particular customer fits into the spectrum.

Ask your customer service, tech support and sales teams to provide names of customers for you to visit. Don’t shy away from “difficult” customers. They often provide the most valuable critical feedback.

If you are not fortunate enough to have a travel budget to visit customers, think creatively. It is nearly always possible to find customers within driving distance. Book an extra day onto conferences and any visits to company offices and plan to visit customers in that area.

Last not but least, don’t overlook traveling with the sales team. Conventional wisdom says that traveling with the sales team is not ideal because you are not there to demo, train or sell a product but to observe, ask questions and gain insight into customer problems. But if ground rules are established, you can both support your sales team and gain customer insight. Best of all the sales team may foot some of the costs for the trip.

Preparing for the Visit

If more than one person from your organization is visiting, make sure roles and responsibilities are clearly defined ahead of time. There is nothing worse than appearing disorganized front of a customer. Never visit a sales territory without informing the sales team. It’s a sure way to alienate them.

Send your agenda in advance so your customer knows why you are visiting and can prepare. If relevant, ask to meet with both decision makers and users of your product for multiple perspectives.

If you are traveling with a sales person, make sure they understand how a customer site visit differs from a typical sales call. You are not there to simply to demo a product or provide training but listen to the customer’s perspective and their challenges

What a customer shares with you versus what they share with a sales representative may be very different. Customers often censor their comments out of loyalty to their sales person but they often have no reservations with sharing them with you as a representative from the “head office.” Most sales people find this illuminating and appreciate how it deepens their understanding of the account.

During the Visit

Maintain an open mind. Forget about your product. Ask open ended questions. Don’t ask customers to give solutions—ask them to identify problems. How are they currently dealing with their challenges? Ask them to share stories.

Let them do most of the talking.. Ask them to give examples. Ask them to describe their goals. Keep probing. Ask them to be specific. How much would they be willing to invest in a solution that makes their lives easier?

Record their responses (with permission) and/or take extensive notes. Write down as many quotes as you can. These can be powerful later.

After the Visit

Debrief as a group immediately. Did you all hear the same thing? What were the key takeaways? It’s amazing how two people can hear different things from the same conversation.

Write your trip report as soon as possible before memory fades. If you have a customer engagement or reporting system, archive your report asap. You’ll find your organization is hungry for customer insights. Share them whenever possible. As many stories as you can tell about your visit, the better.

Last but not least, stay in touch with the customers you have visited. Personalized thank you notes are a nice touch.

On site visits create the opportunity to develop empathy with customers and an unsurpassed understanding of their lives and their problems. They can also be the seed of many relationships that last even if you leave your present organization. Many product managers find site visits inspirational and report that their jobs did not fully become “real” until they saw the impact their solution had on the daily lives of their customers. What we do matters.

As Sam Walton said:

There is only one boss. The customer. And he can fire everybody in the company from the chairman on down, simply by spending his money somewhere else.”

Happy travels!

I’d love to hear about any customer visits that made an impact or changed the way you thought about a product or service!

Michelle Harper has led product management teams for almost 15 years in publishing. She can be found on Twitter at @mlharper.

Photo: iStock

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