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Next article June 3, 2009

What do all those people do?

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Inside any kind of organisation bigger than…


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In the beginning there are no data points. Everything is a guess.

The problem, the customer, the idea, the product, the market, the technology, the structure, the people, the everything.

Most attention falls on the product

Anyone with a bias for action can find it extremely tempting to focus on all the things that have to be done, especially building the product. The “we have to have something to sell” people who put their heads down and build. But how many products get to market only to find there is no market. In a large company, this is probably where people start to blame Marketing. In a small company, this is probably where people start to find new employers.

More attention should fall on the customer

Too many product teams focus solely on the product and forget the customer. And you can never forget the customer. In start-up mode, customers aren’t a source of cash, they’re a source of clarity. Ask them for help, and by the time you get to market you’ll have turned almost all your guesses into data points – ignore them, and you’ll turn up with a shiny new toy but no real idea whether anyone wants it or how to sell it.

Find out about customers

Assuming for a moment that you believe learning about customers is a good idea, and that you intend to really open up your ears, how do you do it and what are you looking for?

1. Get out of the building – Inside, all is mystery, assumption and guesswork. Outside, it’s a bit foggy but hunt around with any kind of determination and you should come across some hard edges. If you don’t find any, your vision is likely to be more dream than reality – the earlier you find that out, the better. Where you do find edges, sharpen your focus.

2. Ask questions – Talk to people, especially potential customers. Get as much data as possible. Act like a funnel, don’t filter, bring everything in. I’ve found that the most productive and insightful conversations are those based on an honest description of the situation, something like, “we’re part way through developing a product and we need some help. We’re trying to learn about …” Here are some of the questions I like to answer:

Who are they? What do they do? What’s their agenda? What is their pain? Where do they gather? How many of them are there? Who influences them? How can I reach them? How do they buy? How often? What’s the decision making process? How do they talk? What do they want? Why now?

3. Fill out the data points – punch through the black-out until you see a clear picture of the product AND the customer. When you see patterns emerge, shift course if you have to.

Nothing about this means you have to do everything customers say. Develop your own compass, don’t swing left then right then left again based on the who-I-spoke-to-last or he-who-shouts-loudest principles. “No” is not a dirty word. Listen to everything about customers you can, then make up your own mind.

This isn’t the same as making up your own mind first then listening until someone, anyone, tells you what you want to hear (the unwritten brief of much market research). We all suffer from confirmation bias, (the propensity to notice things that confirm what we already believe and ignore or discount anything that doesn’t), but I’ve found that being aware, and sometimes naming them out loud in a group can put both bias for action and confirmation bias where they belong; along side all the other risks being managed.

In the beginning there are no data points. Everything is a guess.

However clear your vision, however smart your idea, don’t rely on guesses.

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