In realizing I had not spoken directly with our customers in some time, I decided it was time to get out of the building.
With a major software release right around the corner and being short a Product Manager due to a recent exit, the team was justifiably busy. There was plenty to do with making sure the upcoming deployment went smoothly while also firming up our plans for the very next release. And then there were the myriad other tasks that were on our plate, making it easy to rationalize that there simply was no time in the schedule to step away to talk to our customers.
But let's be honest here. By not making the time to engage your customers, all your other product plans are likely to fail.
What drove this decision
I was starting to get that gnaw in my stomach, the one that comes from making too many uninformed decisions. Because, no matter how confident you may be in setting the direction of your product(s), there is nothing more validating than getting direct feedback from your customer base.
Our Product team had been fairly diligent about reaching out to our users on a regular basis but many of those conversations are virtual and there is often a communication gap with phone calls and web-based meetings. I was eager to get some good face-to-face interaction with our target customers, to hear what they liked about our software, to learn what we could do to help them accomplish more, and to share where we were headed with our new roadmap.
The decision: Leave the building (and the city) and spend some quality face time with a group of customers representing a good cross section of our users.
As hesitant as I was about disappearing from the office for a few days, I knew the in-person discussions would more than compensate. And the plan for this particular trip was to spend a half-day with more than just 1 or 2 customers, so I knew I would return with a good assortment of responses to share with the team.
Plan of attack
Our Customer Success team is in the (good) habit of reaching out to new and existing customers in order to follow up with ongoing implementation initiatives and also to promote the Art of the Possible. We decided to make this event a twofer, extending their standard agenda with a short, product-specific program.
Build Simple Customer Profiles
Before "leaving the building", the first order of business was to gather some intel about the attendees with whom I would be meeting. Together with our Sales and Professional Services teams, I put together some brief customer profiles, paying specific attention to their specific use case and, as a crude gauge of their comfort level with the product, how long they had been users of our system.
This gave me some good, initial context for the level of discussion I would likely be having and helped me refine the scope of the topics I could cover.
Create an Engaging Presentation
I know that very few people look forward to watching a PowerPoint presentation but, when done well, a good slide deck can be an ideal way to communicate ideas with a large audience.
For this event, I pulled together a series of slides that I thought would keep their attention and, more specifically, prompt some honest discussion among the group. For example, I included in the deck:
- A high-level, vendor's perspective of their business problem, showing how the company views their particular customer scenarios and intended to trigger dialog around exceptions and edge cases;
- Annotated screenshots of recently-introduced product features that they may not have had a chance to play with but would take too much time to demo completely, meant to spark conversation around additional exploration and use of the product;
- And a 1-page Product Roadmap that communicated, in broad strokes and without specific dates, the priority of particular product initiatives related to their use cases, designed to stimulate feedback and confirm we were on the right track.
Days before the event, I reviewed the material with my team, incorporating some great, internal feedback while also rehearsing the presentation flow.
Demo, Survey, Preview, Recruit
There was a lot to squeeze into the time slot we had carved out for my Product talk. I wanted to promote the current state of the product and explain how and where we were looking to make enhancements. I had brought along some early, high fidelity prototypes in case we hit on a particularly popular or sensitive topic. I also was hoping to conduct a brief survey to get feedback on a number of our product roadmap intentions. And finally, I had hoped to recruit some of the customers into our more formal "labs" program so we could follow up with more intense analysis.
Other than a few weather-related, last minute cancellations, the meeting went off without a hitch. The participants seemed pleased with having direct access to the Product organization and appreciated the brief glimpse into the company's product strategy. Many of them have since enrolled in the more structured labs program and have indicated a strong preference to stay engaged with us.
Share Results With the Product Team
I returned to the office the next week eager to review the notes with the Product team. And while it seems there is never sufficient time to fully digest results of customer interviews and surveys, I was able to share a synopsis of the event and fold much of the feedback into our (still crude) research database.
The good news is that the majority of the feedback validated our current product plans, at least for the next few major releases. It is certainly helpful to hear from your own customers that the product is indeed solving their needs. There were some familiar "hot spots" and valid complaints from the group and this has led to some re-prioritization work on our side that might not have been prompted by an interview with a single customer.
I strongly suspect there will be more such events in our future and that, as we continue to strengthen our outreach efforts, we will find it increasingly easier to get out of the building.