Ask A Good Product Manager

Your product management questions answered

How can you listen to the market with limited resources?

Posted on November 3, 2008 · 7 Comments

Question: How can a product manager get customer feedback without spending a lot of money?

How do we deal with budget cuts during hard times, while at the same time keep our ears open to the customers? What are great ways to get feedback of the product remotely?

Answer from Paul Young of Product Beautiful: When budgets are cut, Product Management is no exception. You’ll see less travel opportunities, which can mean less face time with customers and target customers. Keeping your ear to Market is even more important in lean economic times, because customers are less willing to spend on your solutions, and features that are “thrown in” to the product are more than just a waste of resources, they could be a danger to your product or company’s existence! Thankfully, it’s not hard to find very inexpensive ways to connect with the Market, it just takes work and patience.

If you just want feedback on an existing product, there are cheap/free options like GoToMeeting and WebEx that allow you to do webinars and demos. You can use Google Ads, an ebook or white paper to attract an interested audience. You can also tap your customer base. We all have our favorite top 10 customers that we call for feedback; treat them well and they will return the favor. Give them extra attention, expose them to advance betas, listen to their feedback and treat them as an early indicator of things to look for in the Market. Just remember that as your customers, they are going to give you feedback through the lens of the product they are buying from you: “I want a button on this screen,” or “I want feature X.” If you only build for your own customers, you risk missing out on trends in the Market. You need to be talking to target customers.

Depending on the type of product or service you manage, ask yourself – where can I find my target customer? If you’re selling consumer goods, you can probably go down to the local grocery store and observe your potential customers yourself. If you’re selling to IT managers or CIOs, it can be harder – there’s not a grocery store where you can watch these people work…or is there? I recently wrote a post on Product Beautiful about how you can use social networking to connect with your customers. There are millions of blogs out there, and some are being written by your target customers. There are throngs of people on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking sites who are putting details about themselves and what is important to them out there for you to see. Google for keywords that people may be writing about and then follow my tutorial for how to connect with them via email – it’s nearly free, only costs you a few minutes of your time, and can potentially connect you with some very valuable people willing to have a conversation.

Other ways you can connect with customers is by win/loss analysis. Keep a database of your win/loss analysis and follow up with the losses after 6-months. Usually by that time the deal is dead and Sales isn’t as uptight about you getting in their way. By now the customer has moved on to something else, which is a great time to talk to them and find out why. You may find out about a key feature that you didn’t think was important.

7 other answers so far ↓

  • John Mansour // Nov 4, 2008 at 10:34 am

    Keeping a pulse on the market is one of the easiest things to do in budget crunch times. Here are a few that worked well for me. Start with a few of your customers and a good old fashion phone call that goes something like this…How has the economy impacted your company i.e., how have the top priorities of the company changed? What’s the impact on your area and what are you being asked to do as a result? Keep in mind, your goal is to determine how the market dynamics have impacted your target customers both strategically and operationally so you can connect the dots to help drive your product direction. Stay away from tactical product issues in these conversations as they tend to blur your understanding of the market and how it’s impacting.

    The other tactic that’s an easier sell to management is when you’re traveling for something that is budgeted like sales support activities, have the same conversation with prospects, then try to find another customer in the vicinity and extend your trip for a day. The cost is marginal.

  • Raj // Nov 5, 2008 at 2:58 pm

    Great points by Paul and John.

    Another tool I use to gather customer feedback that is relatively inexpensive is — Online Survey tools such as SurveyMonkey, etc.

    You can email a small number of questions (say, less than 10) to a select group of customers and get their feedback. Then you can follow up via phone calls to dig deeper.

    – Raj
    Accompa – Affordable Tool Helps Product Managers to Manage Requirements and Customer Feedback

  • Dr. Jim Anderson // Nov 6, 2008 at 7:32 pm

    … and just to add one more free way to keep up with your customer: read what they are publishing. Depending on their public / private status, they may be publishing quarterly and annul reports, financials, etc. These can be a gold mine for finding out what your current and potential customer’s hot buttons are. Oh, and when your current customers list their main competition in the “possible challenges” section, then poof you suddenly have your list of new potential customers to call on!

    – Dr. Jim Anderson
    The Accidental PM Blog
    “Learn How Product Managers Can Be Successful And Get The Respect That They Deserve”

  • Michael Ray Hopkin // Nov 8, 2008 at 12:16 pm

    I agree with John; phone calls can work wonders. As much as I love e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, etc., talking to customers is the next best thing to seeing them. Take the time to listen to their concerns; you can get a better feel for where your market is moving by listening to what they say and how they say it. -Michael

  • Paul Young // Nov 13, 2008 at 1:51 am

    Just a clarification…I’m not advocating following your customers on Twitter or friending them on Facebook. The only reason to do these things is to get access to people for the purpose of a face to face or phone call.

  • David Locke // Nov 30, 2008 at 4:16 pm

    The business cycle is a reality. Consider what you would do in a downturn while you still have money to impliment the process and architecture you will need in the downturn.

    Beyond a downturn, the late market, consumer market, and SaaS markets are markets where growth stalls, so they look like a recession.

    Late market strategies include lifetime value segmentation, deaveraging product portfolios, and value-basing. All of these strategies require segmentation that is focused on meaning, rather than demographics and psychographics. The segmentation will be behavior driven.

    Moving to SaaS will cut your cost and free up monies. Moving to SaaS will also require task sublimation, which will alter your customer base, and enable the capturing of behavior in server logs and web analytics. A view is a page, so you can extend your direct marketing web efforts into functionality provision. You would need to train your developers on how to work with marketing in regards to web analytics. This would also enable you to do prototyping in the front end of interface development, rather than as an after the fact effort.

    Better segmentation will reduce the churn and conflict amoung the feature requests you’ll encounter while listening to your customer.

    If you are entering a recession, rather than the late, consumer, or SaaS markets, you should keep on listening to your customers. If you are near the late, consumer, or SaaS markets, your company should already have a disruptive, non-sustaining technology working its way through new markets, because the stall point is on the horizon. Investment can drive the timing of the next technology’s entry into the tornado. You can slow it down or speed it up.

    Without a new technology, listening to your customers in the late market can drive you upmarket, or it can drive you to the end of your customer base. Listening become lock in.

    A recession will slow down the upgrade sales. Releases are done for upgrade sales, so slow down the progress along the roadmap. Conserve cash. Code less, listen more. Refactor and cure those bugs. Recessions pass.

    The arrival and departure of recessions shouldn’t be a big surprise. Get inputs from niche specific economists to help you drive your plan. The recssions that make the news may not impact your niche at all.

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