Product Managers…Get out of the Office!

out of the office

To Build Innovative Products….Get Out of the Office

As product managers we spend countless hours looking at market trends, competition, technology, and customer requests.  However, will this help build innovative products?  I contend that this process enables you to build a product that satisfies basic market needs. But this process will not generate breakthrough product innovation.  These are all key facets needed, but one more is required….visiting customers and spending a ‘day in the life’ of your key users, buyers, and stakeholders.    

It’s not about a new feature here, a new usability improvement there.  It about truly understanding the business problems your customers are trying to solve, looking at those business problems from various user’s perspective within the customer, and understanding that business problem in context of the customer’s business and organizational goals.  The ultimate goal of product management is to solve business problems, not to build features for the sake of features.  It’s through watching users in action that the new ideas will emerge. It’s not just how they are using your current system.  It’s about their interactions with colleagues, the details of the problems they are solving, and their workflow.  

When determining what customers to go visit, consider the following.

  • Size: You want a mix of customer size.  If you serve multiple markets, make sure to visit customers in each segment.
  • Industry: If you serve different industries, make sure to have a mix of industries.
  • Innovative Thinker:  I always visited customers that had a key stakeholder (e.g. CIO) who is a thought leader.
  • Partner: Look for customers who can work with you not only in terms of visiting them, but as you build new product ideas, can be a sounding board for those ideas as you work through the product lifecycle.
  • Local: If you have customers that meet some of the criteria above, then a local customer gives you the ability to have multiple visits without eating into your budget.
  • Middle of Sales Cycle:  Consider where the customer is in the sales cycle. If they are in the middle of a major purchase, this should be considered in your decision whether it’s the right time to visit this customer.
  • Happy or Unhappy:  I believe you need to visit both customers who are happy with your solution, but those who are struggling with the tool or its not meeting their business needs.

Meet with various people during your customer visit.  Not only the users of the system, but those who drive the business flow, those who are ultimately responsible for solving the particular business problem, and an IT thought leader who is looking forward strategically.

Customer visits are a key part of building innovative products.  Not only at the time when you are building requirements, but as you start to build your long term roadmap and strategy.