In yet another attempt to get out of the building and sit face to face with my customers, I decided to grab a seat in the next customer training session.
Product Managers, of any rank, need to get to know their end users. You don't get to hide behind a fancy senior-type title to avoid the difficult and often humbling experience of interacting with the people who buy and use your products.
But it can be more challenging for the Product Head Honcho to carve off blocks of time to sit with customers because the role has so many other responsibilities.
What drove this decision
In the back of my mind, I knew it had been too long since I had had any real interaction with our users. For months, I had been relying on solid, but second-hand input from my Product team to help drive roadmap decisions but I very much wanted to supplement that with my own data points.
Some weeks back I learned that the company had scheduled the next multi-day training class for customers and partners. I knew that would be a decent opportunity to step away from the office and spend some quality time with my target audience.
The decision: Spend most of the class in listen-only mode while also weaving in some interactive, product-focused discussions.
Our customer training course is a week long affair and operates on a fairly tight schedule because of the range of functionality we cover to address a rather broad set of use cases. As such, I would not be able to carve off big blocks of time to do proper customer interviews. So rather than hijack the agenda, I looked for other windows of time for both formal and informal interactions with the attendees.
I made it my goal to bring back new product insights to my team and to learn as much as I could about both our existing and future product direction.
Plan of attack
You don't get to hide behind a fancy senior-type title to avoid the difficult and often humbling experience of interacting with the people who buy and use your products.
As I mentioned, the training agenda is tight so I would be squeezing in opportunities here and there to cover my own topics. To kick things off, I gave the standard welcome speech on the morning of the first day and wove in my parallel agenda as we covered the week's schedule.
I teased the audience by inviting them to attend a "working lunch" where I would deliver a live overview of new enhancements that were part of the major release that had just been pushed the week before.
I also proposed that we gather before class on one of the days to preview some of the exciting ideas we were brewing up in our Research Lab. This would be a unique opportunity for me to pick their collective brain and for them to help steer the products themselves.
And finally, I encouraged anyone looking for 1 on 1 time to track me down during the regular breaks to talk about any specific topics.
Emphasize the value of feedback from customers
In every interaction, I tried to stress how important it was for me and my team to hear from our users. I talked about the different options they could utilize for passing back their concerns, suggestions, and praise (ha!).
I was careful, however, not to set the expectation that we would act on every input. I showed a product-centric chart that I use to educate/remind both external and internal audiences of the complications of owning a product - specifically that the inputs are many and the available resources are finite.
Spotlight product updates based on voice of the customer
To reinforce those messages, I queued up some of the new product features and enhancements we had delivered over the past few releases that were largely driven by customer feedback. I talked about how early interviews had revealed common pain points across customer implementations. And I showed how, through constant validation with end users, we had been able to advance the product to address their requirements.
Recruit end users and administrators for future R&D
Always be recruiting. That could be the slogan for our research team - and they never let me forget it. So I also put in a few plugs for our ongoing R&D initiatives. Passing out business cards is easy but somewhat impersonal so I also followed up with an email to all the participants.
I did gather some good product feedback from the group, some of it unsolicited and some of it through more formal discussions. I would recommend opportunities like this to other Product Managers looking to spend quality time with a captive audience.
The class participants seemed appreciative as well. They had positive reactions to the connections I made between customer feedback and product innovation. There also seemed to value having a direct line to the company's Head of Products, if only for a short period of time.