Ask A Good Product Manager

Your product management questions answered

Can a product manager get feedback without talking to customers?

Posted on April 7, 2008 · 9 Comments

Question: How can I get feedback when I can not talk directly to customers?

I understand that direct feedback from customers is important when developing a new product and managing existing products. In my case, I’m one of the Product Managers that isn’t able to work with customers directly and must rely on other parties within the company to pass information along. This, of course, means that the people I rely on have priorities outside of getting me the information I need. I’ve found in many cases that I receive bad information because getting feedback for me just wasn’t a high enough priority. What’s the best way to ensure that the people I rely on for information are giving me real feedback that will actually benefit the growth and development of my product?

Answer from Adam Bullied of Write That Down: Gathering market data, specifically customer and/or user data, is key to developing and ultimately shipping a product that successfully solves problems within a defined market. However, not all product managers have the luxury of calling on customers directly or reading user e-mails, support forum posts, and other channels.

When you rely on others to gather this data, how can you expect to consistently release market-driven products?

The first issue to work through is why the product manager doesn’t have direct contact with the users. Sales, Marketing, Executive (and others) should be more than fine with regularly scheduled contact with both actual customers and prospects. It’s critical the PM follows-up to ensure that right questions are in fact being asked, and the answers are being interpreted and recorded properly.

If you are a PM and absolutely cannot talk to customers, you should be asking “why not?” And, if you have to rely on other cross-functional parties to retrieve data for you, there are some things you can put in place by working with the cross-functional team leads (for example, the VP, Director, etc…):

  • Sales: Win / Loss, Opportunity Pipeline, Customer Visits, CRM
  • Marketing: Analytics / ROI Tracking, Campaign Metrics, CRM, Surveys, General Analytics
  • Support: Wiki, Knowledgebase, Customer E-mails, CRM
  • Other: Analyst Reports, Web Research (Wikipedia, Compete.com, Hitwise.com, etc…), Industry Trades, LinkedIn Q & A

This list runs a pretty wide gamut. There are different scenarios to keep in mind if you are a PM releasing B2B products or if you are PM releasing B2C products. For example, consumer products typically won’t have extensive win / loss reporting or CRM systems. That being said, this should give you some idea of both putting the systems in place to gather the data cross-functionally, as well as trying to validate what you have discovered with industry metrics.

Let’s look at a specific examples in each department. I’ll take a more Enterprise / B2B approach, simply because it’s ridiculous that if you are a PM in a consumer company and you don’t have access to any user data. We’ll break this example down by department.

Remember, if the functional team lead isn’t willing to help you get these things in place at all, you have other problems on your hands (like major politics) that need resolving. It’s very difficult being a PM at all — never mind when there are folks just not capable of understanding what you need to do your job, and that any of these things can help them too once they are in place. This is a challenging balancing act (believe me, I’ve been there multiple times). And while you can scavenge for data throughout your organization, you may find that unless you have explicit top-down support behind you, nothing is getting done – and that can really knock the wind out of your sales quickly.

Sales

You may like working with Sales or hate it. There are PMs in both camps. I don’t mind it, so long as they are willing to help and can look-up regularly from their next three deals to give me some insight about what’s going on in the Market. You simply cannot ignore they are out there, pounding the pavement and talking to the people you want buying your product.

Win / loss reports are the first big thing. Yes, this requires top-down assistance from the Sales Manager in order to implement. However, here are some points:

Pros

  • Easily implemented within the flow of an existing CRM system
  • If structured properly, you can trend the win / loss data and start to see patterns emerge about why you are losing deals (features, poor roadmap, pricing issues, etc…)
  • It’s quick — getting this implemented should take about a week, depending on the red-tape and size of your Sales organization
  • This gives you a strong sense of if you should follow-up with customers directly or if you to try to work with the rep to get more data to help you with your decision making process

Cons

  • Sales people hate filling out reports
  • A rep will typically not want to give anyone reasons for why they lost a deal — it makes them look bad
  • A Sales Manager will not want reps taking huge amounts of time filling out detailed reports
  • Unless properly structured, the data coming back in will be awful and not robust enough
  • It’s grandfathered in — there’s no way reps are going to want to go back through all of their previously closed deals (either won or lost) to fill this report out

A win / loss is very standard – especially in B2B organizations. In theory, you should be able to call up any prospect that was “lost” and talk to them for more detailed data. You may also ask the rep to tag along on customer visits, regardless of whether they are a current client or a prospect. They should be glad to bring along the expert. Plus, you get to spy on them to see if they are making promises off of your roadmap you don’t like.

Opportunity pipelines do tie directly into win / loss reports a great deal; however, they should be used to predict what products are getting some good traction in the market. This is especially helpful when managing a multi-product portfolio. The pipeline should flag you to critical problems that will eventually make their way into your product P&Ls. For example, why isn’t a product selling as well as forecasted? This is a good discussion point for face-to-face communication with your Sales Manager and/or reps. Why are deals taking so long to close? This may call for some changes to the purchasing process or pricing. Or maybe the roadmap isn’t what the market is expecting?

But again, these are great questions to have answered, but they don’t go all the way. Either your win / loss reports will fill in the gaps left by your pipelines, but you’re going to continue to encounter the situation of needing to get on the phone with the client, or simply visit them with the Sales rep to see what they are all about.

Marketing

Marketing plays a crucial role in understanding how your customers are actually engaging with your product. Remember, product managers listen to a market, and marketers speak to it. If you aren’t getting solid traction with campaigns, or in the case of a Web-based product — it’s not getting solid numbers (as displayed by your analytics package in place), it’s time to research what to do. The positioning could be off, the feature set may not be very engaging. Maybe your product is really hard to use?

Again, these are solid indicators of issues or successes – but more research is typically required to sort through the data. It’s great to know your Web product isn’t very sticky / engaging, but what are you going to do about it? Maybe you are missing some key commoditized features. For example, a blog platform (think, WordPress) that is released and doesn’t offer a way to provide readers with RSS feeds for each blog on the platform probably is going to be overlooked by a large percentage of your targeted segments.

Making those decisions requires acknowledgment of a) you know your industry b) you know your market and c) you know there is an issue.

Support

While support reps are an internal resource, like Sales they are on the front lines. They know better than anyone who is having problems doing what with your product. Make regular trips to your call center. Make sure the reps are getting proper ongoing product training. The more your relationship is developed with this functional group, the more data you are going to get that starts to help solidify your decisions as problems become exposed with the Sales and Marketing data points outlined above.

You may have an internal wiki or knowledgebase in place, or maybe everything is filtering through your CRM system. In the case of the latter, you will have the benefit of running win / loss, pipeline, marketing, and support reports all from the same place. You should then be able to start cross-referencing details about things like, “18% of our customers have requested we put feature A in place. Sales has lost 2% of deals over the last 90 days due to not having Feature A, and our site analytics indicate our bounce rates are increasing after users check our feature list.” This example paints a pretty clear picture that Feature A needs to be put in place.

Other

Just get out there and start retaining all of the information about your industry you can. By wary of analyst reports, since they aren’t very good of predicting the future at all. But they are good for more historical trending and short-term roadmap items. Competitive analysis is also crucial – you can always get some solid ideas about what’s working the market place by identifying and analyzing some of your key competitors. Sites like compete.com and Hitwise.com can also help you to trend out how competitor sites are performing in the market to help you set some baseline objectives.

At the end of the day, all of these things are great to do and they can really help you out. But, they may require some active lobbying from the PM to have them put in place. Typically in start-ups, if you have a great CEO, they want to hear about all the issues. If you are reporting to a Director / VP of product management and they don’t see the value in implementing these things and of actually getting out the office and talking to customers, you may want to think about having a chat with your CEO.

There are a myriad of outstanding reasons why PMs need to be involved at all stages of a deal (in the case of B2B) and in most cases (for B2C) directly responsible for acquiring and handling all user data. That all being said, it is possible using the methods I cover here to make some educated decisions with only minimal engagement from others in the organization since they may already be doing much of this anyways, or willing to put it in because it does benefit them as well.

Happy researching!

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