Archive for the 'Market research' Category

Product Camp Boston and “ignorant” customers

Saturday, November 14th, 2009

I went to my first Product Camp this month.  It was the second one held in Boston.  These are “unconferences” organized in the barcamp style.  That is a self organizing conference.  Anyone who wants to give a presentation puts a short description up on a board.  Everyone has a few colored dots to place on these proposals to vote their preferences.  The number of votes a presentation gets determines what room it’ll be held in and to some extent when it is scheduled.  Then everyone attends the presentations of their choice except when they are giving one.  There were a couple of invited presentations that all attended and then about 5 rooms running simultaneously.  There were 140-180 attendees.

I proposed a session titled “Ferreting out Customer Needs.”  It was more popular than I expected.  I anticipated leading a discussion with a dozen people around a table like the first session I attended.  Instead I found myself giving a podium presentation in the biggest room with 2 screens before about 70 people.  Good thing I decided to type my notes into Powerpoint instead of Word at the last minute.  Risk management, you know?

Still, I did go through the room asking everyone why they attended and what they hoped to learn.  My focus was on the importance of understanding your customers’ needs and how to do that.  Yet three people wanted help making their customers understand they don’t need features they were demanding.  I think all three were from software companies.

My bias is to assume in a case like this YOU are the one not listening to your customer.  I diplomatically hinted at that but did not provide the definitive and fair answer they deserved.  I might be right but it occurred to me later that one of the tools that I talked about could be used to address this question.

The concept is simple.  Customers have needs.  They buy products (and services) that offer certain benefits to meet those needs.  Features provide the product’s benefits.  Engineers design features.  Someone has to do a mapping between the customer needs and product features.  (Often that will be the product manager.)   This is how you insure the engineers are working on the right features.

Not doing so means you spend a lot of time and money on features the customer won’t value (i.e. pay for) because they don’t meet any need.  Moreover, you risk completely missing customer needs leaving an opening for the competition.  After all, the single largest reason for product failure is developing products that don’t meet real customer needs.

This concept is easily pictured.

CUSTOMER has        PRODUCT        ENGINEER designs
____Needs___==>   Benefits   <==___Features____
……..need 1                                         feature 1
……..need 2                                        feature 2
……..   …                                             feature 3
……..                                                  feature 4
……..                                                  feature 5
……..                                                   …

If you can’t map a feature to a need, that’s a sign it shouldn’t be there.  If you have needs not met by any feature, they have to get into the product requirements and you have work to do.  This is a good tool to help you focus on the features you should develop and to put off those you shouldn’t.

What if you think your customer is demanding features they don’t need making you waste time and money?  The first possibility is that you really don’t understand their needs.  You need to revisit your voice of the customer work to see what you missed.  The second possibility is that you are right.

My answer in either case is that you should sit down with your customer with the lists of needs and features and map the connections together.  The customer might put needs on the list that are supported by the features you thought were unnecessary.  Or you might be able to demonstrate to the customer that these features do not connect to any of their real needs.  Be aware that emotional needs may not be obvious yet can be more important than any functional need.  An unused feature may provide a feeling of security for example.  “It’s there just in case I need it.”

This is a good exercise in any case and is likely to lead to surprise learnings for both of you.  The process should also bring you closer to your customer and that can’t be bad.

Can you outsource product management?

Monday, September 29th, 2008

Does that make sense? Alyssa Dyer took on this question in an article I came across while cleaning up. I saved it because I agreed. It depends. It can be a good thing in the right circumstances and with the right division of labor.

When you need a partisan. Some things you don’t want handled by an outsider — for instance, representing your company at conferences or in sales situations.

When you need a mercenary. There are tasks that an outsider may do better. Alyssa cites gathering requirements and prioritizing them. I would sharpen that to include the front-end market research like voice of the customer (VOC) activities.

The key is that you need to hire someone experienced. They will likely be more skilled at asking the necessary “why” questions and they are less likely to hold the biases about your customers that pervade your organization and industry.

She cautions against hiring a telemarketing company because they are typically about asking “what” questions. I would expand this to include many of the traditional market research companies that might hold focus groups and ask “what” people want, “what” they prefer. Gerald Zaltman tears the market research community a new one in the first part of his book about “how customers think” for exactly this reason. Also, because those kind of methods influence the answers you get. They are right for refining your solution but wrong when defining the product and requirements.

Experience also helps you know when you’ve gotten enough information. I recommend Abbie Griffin’s paper listed on our Resources page for more about when your sample is enough.

Obviously it’s an interesting topic to me since clients outsource key product development and product management services to Breakthrough NPD. The things we excel at and do that are on her list include:
# Customer research
# Gathering requirements
# Prioritizing requirements
# Competitive analysis
# Positioning and message validation
# Website review and alignment
# In-depth quality checks with customers
# Setting up and running a customer feedback council

In fact, anything that is best served by a neutral 3rd party, like calling customers or reporting up to management, is a good candidate for using an external party. Outsiders have less to lose by giving management the facts especially when they aren’t pretty.

We do some product management functions that are good for outsourcing if we have the right experience but are likely to engage a partner or provide a referral instead. For example,
o Sales tool development and review
o Evaluating and conducting a release debriefing (lessons learned)

And there are the product management functions she lists that we generally don’t do but we might be able to make a referral.
— Win/loss reporting (it is good to keep sales dept. bias out)
— Pricing
— Planning and managing product launches

So when is this good for your organization? Bringing in help to take on some of these product management functions makes sense at these times:

1. As a stopgap until you can fill the job internally or with a new hire. (Keeping the product moving, cutting down schedule risk, keeping work from piling up).

2. Helping deal with the backlog of PM tasks that built up while searching for your new PM.

3. Bringing in experience to raise the level of your internal PMs.

4.Breaking outside the box created by internal biases. (To make big innovation steps.)

With the economy tightening I think a lot of companies will cut back on new development. Outsiders can help with specific tasks or projects to help you survive with a smaller staff during a lean period. They can also help you manage risks. That’s more important when you have less margin of safety. Furthermore, smart companies know that the lean time is a good time to prepare new products because by the time they are ready the economy will have turned around and you’ll have something new to capitalize on the upswing while your competitors get left behind.

“Is it possible to outsource your product management?” Alyssa Dwyer, Mass High Tech, Feb. 9-15, 2007, p12.

The Voice of the Customer, Abbie Griffin and John Hauser
(scroll to the end of list)

How Customers Think, Gerald Zaltman