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What’s more important – releasing products or understanding customer needs?

Yes, I know, both are important. And, of course, you need to understand customer needs before rushing to ship products, if you don’t want to completely miss the mark. But in the reality of many product managers’ day-to-day work, especially in small or medium-size companies, most of the bandwidth goes into building and releasing products. Getting out of the office, meeting with customers and prospects, and other insight-gathering activities are often reactive and tend to fall into second place in priority. Is that by choice or by accident? And how do we get out of the vicious cycle?

Don Vendetti wrote an interesting post about small company product management activities. The results of a survey he ran, although admittedly not statistically large, indicate that product managers know very well that they need to be “out there”, understanding the market, problem space, and customer needs. In fact, the top 5 activities considered most impactful by respondents all had to do with understanding needs and translating them into product strategy, roadmap, and requirements. This is really just commonsense.

Yet, when asked about activities actually performed, the top activity was “working with development”. Other activities related to “feeding” development, such as product planning and defining requirements, were ranked high, along with triage, project/release planning, and sales support. “Meeting with customers” was not even in the top 10 activities! Unfortunately, this matches what I’ve seen in many companies as well as my own experience – I’ve certainly sinned in spending too much time with development and too little with customers.

This is not entirely as bad as it sounds, at least not in early stages of a company. The founders of startups typically do much vetting of their ideas (hopefully with customers, though not always) and often have experience in the market to which they sell. So customer needs are relatively well understood by the company and naturally the focus is on building the solution and getting it to market. The first product manager is often brought on board just to manage the details of that process, when it becomes too much for the founders to handle. Another mitigating factor is that product managers tend to be involved in early sales and so maintain customer contact through that activity. But as the number of customers as well as product breadth grow, it becomes much harder to stay in touch with customers.

Since the day-to-day activities of managing product releases and keeping engineering occupied tend to have hard deadlines and high visibility, what usually suffers is customer interaction. This also has the least short-term impact. But as time goes by, insiders, including product managers, have less and less insight into how customers use products, what problems they are solving with them, and what additional needs they have that are yet unmet. Its easy for executives to focus on visible product delivery issues; it’s much harder, and require foresight, to notice that the company is falling out of tune with customers.

So how do we get beyond the work patterns, staffing constraints, and expectations that are set early on in favor of shipping products? One must implement a process and leverage tools that will enable, in fact force, constant customer touch-points. While the common annual customer advisory meetings, user surveys, and enhancement request forms are all valid research tools, they are not sufficient.

I’ve come to believe that in order to make sure that the proverbial “voice of the customer” is part of the ongoing product management process we need to actually get the customers themselves involved in this process. We’re lucky enough that these days both the technologies and the user behavior paradigms exist to collaborate online with customers (and other product stakeholders) so that we can leverage community insights and drive them directly into the product planning and development process. If you don’t have time to go to customers then have the customers come to you.

And not only to you, the product manager. By creating an online product community, you can expose other employees to customer discussions and educate them on customer needs. This is important in every company, and especially in Agile development organizations, where the Product Owners are often engineers and not product managers (as I wrote in detail in a separate post).

Don’t be fooled, though, into thinking that creating a community around product requirements will be successful without your active involvement. It certainly requires participation and facilitation by the product management team. Just like a good party requires its host to actively make sure people come and are having a good time. The better community-based product management tools are structured to help the community be more self-sufficient, for example by helping members categorize requirements or find similar requirements to theirs to reduce duplication. And you get much better insights and deeper partnerships with customers. But you do need to invest in it – it takes two to tango.

So what’s more important – getting products out the door or understanding customer needs? As far as expectations from product management, it seems to change with company maturity. In the early stages, when there is usually a strong organizational understanding of customer needs, the focus tends to be on the former – building the solution and getting sales. As the company matures, it is product management’s responsibility to invest more resources into customer and market research to make sure that the company can keep innovating. Evolving into a community-based product management process is an important step in that direction.

Are you devoting enough time to meet with customers and understand their needs? What have you found helpful in accomplishing this? Looking forward to reading your comments!



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