Asking customers about the features they require mostly leads to bad product performance. David J Bland’s infamous „Product Death Cycle” illustrates precisely this issue. Many people quote Henry Ford, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses,” suggesting that you should not listen to your customers. In contrast, Lean Startup, Design Thinking, Customer Development, and other innovation methods suggest that you do exactly this – talk and listen to your customers. While that sounds like a paradox, this article aims to help you decide which customer feedback to consider and which one to filter out.
Circle of Competence
To explain which feedback to consider and which to neglect, adopt the “circle of competence,” which was made famous by star investor Warren Buffet. He only invested in stocks he thoroughly understood and calls that his “circle of competence”.
But how does that apply to product management? We consider both the customer and the product manager to have their own circles of competence. The customer’s circle of competence is the problem space, while the product manager’s circle of competence is the solution space. It sounds trivial but has huge impact!
Junior product managers, in specific, tend to think that the customer should perfectly know what they actually need. However, when companies build what customers ask for, they are rarely delighted. Here is the problem: the customer is NOT the product expert. He generally does not know about the newest technology available and is not perfectly informed about the possibilities and needs of peers. The customer is only the “problem owner”! Hence the circle of competence of your target customer is the problem space and not the solution space.
For you, as a product manager, this means that you can ask the customer anything about his problem and therefore, ensure that you are building something suited to the needs of the customer. Questions such as the following are appropriate:
- How is the customer treating the problem today?
- Which solutions is the customer using today?
- Why is he using that exact solution?
- Why does the solution still suck if he is looking for alternatives?
Any question about the problem will help a product manager understand the context and craft a better product for the customer.
A customer-centric product manager’s job
You, as a product manager, are responsible to combine your learnings about the problem with your knowledge about technology, as well as creativity and craft a solution. Since you are not certain if your idea will work with the customer, you take it as early and as often to your target audience in order to verify that you are on track. This is how great products are created. If it would only require asking customers what to build and execute based on that input, it would be really. Some people think that is the job of a product manager, but it is not!
Luckily, it is not only about executing the customers wish list. The search and discovery of a product is as hard and time consuming as the execution itself. Nonetheless, most companies and product managers treat product development as an execution game and treat the feature wish list of customers as their requirement document. Good luck with that! This is a very common reason for failing products.
Scratch your own itches
If you have this picture in mind, it makes complete sense to scratch your own itch. In essence, this approach ensures that you are the problem expert. In fact, in this case, the expert of the problem and expert of the product align with each other! There is still a key catch in this scenario – are there sufficient people out there with the same issue?
A product cannot simply be defined by asking customers what to build. Otherwise, a customer survey would replace many product manager’s job. You, as a product manager, need to understand what problem the customer wants you to solve. What issues does he face as a user of the current solutions and what outcomes would he like to achieve? This knowledge blended with technology and creativity will enable you to WOW your customer.
Here’s what works best for me:
Now you know which customer input to listen to the which input you should discard. The only thing remaining now is to get out of the building and actually talk to your customers! 😉
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