How Well Do You Really Know Your Customers?
Have you ever worked with a "Believable Brad?" This type of product manager sounds convincing — they know all the right things to say about customers and share impressive anecdotes from a few sales and support calls they attend as a silent observer. But when you ask for deeper detail or the why behind their answers ... they get flustered. Believable Brad does not like to share specifics. The reason is simple. They do not really know what customers feel and think — they only have a superficial understanding.
The best product managers go deep to develop empathy — and they engage directly and deeply with customers.
Perhaps you have tried by creating user personas to represent your customers. A product manager I know tells the story of a team-building exercise where they created life-sized cardboard cut-outs for each of their customer types. This was the sole way they tried to "get in the head" of the customer. The team wrote detailed descriptions on the cut-outs to bring each persona to life. After the session, the personas were on display in a conference room for a few weeks.
You might be able to guess where this is going. After a few weeks, the cut-outs were tucked into a corner. Months later, those personas were in a closet collecting dust. Then finally someone folded them up and tucked them into the recycling bin. It is a silly story but fitting.
Many product organizations treat personas as a one-and-done exercise. As a product manager, you are constantly told that you should know your customers — what they need, what motivates them, and how your product solves their problems. Creating personas is a useful tool but it will not suffice. It is your responsibility to push the team to go deeper than customer anecdotes and cardboard cut-outs. You need to build ongoing relationships into what you do. You need to have conversations — lots of them.
If you are passionate about building a lovable product — you must also be passionate about knowing and loving the customer.
Great product managers know that the better you understand your customers, the more equipped you are to deliver an exceptional product. Still, the day-to-day demands of your job can make it hard to go beyond a surface-level understanding of customers. Making this discovery a habit takes intentionality and practice. The methods below are a few ways to get started:
We often learn best through experience. So use your own product. Understand its benefits and frustrations so you can speak clearly about them. Set aside 30 minutes each day to engage directly with what you have built. Document all the steps it takes to complete an action or solve a specific problem with the product. See the product from the customer's vantage point and you will develop greater empathy for their requests.
If it is not realistic for you to use the product (and for many product managers, it is not), do the next best thing. Lead product demos, take a first pass at writing new support documentation, and evaluate customer feedback every week.
If you cannot do it yourself, actively observe others using your product. See if you can shadow customers and ask them to describe what they are thinking. Pay attention to the choices they make. Ask why. Listen closely to their answers. You will learn a lot from observing customers at different phases of their journey — a brand new customer will have a different attitude and behavior than a sophisticated one.
But if you cannot engage customers directly for some reason, you can also shadow teammates who work closely with customers and participate in the conversations. With support teams especially, look for themes in the types of questions that are being asked. Or the questions that they are unsure of how to answer. See if you can follow up with customers afterwards to better understand why frustrated folks got so stumped and why happy users are thriving.
Simple queries can yield meaningful responses. It is true that customers do not always know what they want, but they can describe why they are stuck or what they are trying to do. If you already capture customer requests in an ideas portal, then it is easy to engage directly with users about their needs.
Whether conversations are live or in text, do your best to keep questions open-ended so customers have plenty of room to describe their reasons. Ask questions like:
How do you complete [this task]?
What [task or problem] is particularly challenging for you?
What is one thing you can accomplish with our product that you could not do before?
What area of the product annoys you?
Every piece of information you gather about your customers is valuable. But you need to find ways to cement those learnings so you can bring that knowledge to every product decision. The breadth of what you want to retain may feel vast, so make learning about your customers a daily practice. You grasp concepts more deeply through prolonged and repeated exposure.
Being disciplined makes product work more meaningful — grounded in real problems and people.
Your customers change over time and getting to know them is a constant process. The most believable product managers can empathize with customers because they spend meaningful time getting to know them.
As your knowledge evolves, layer in new learnings. Keep your perception fresh by questioning what you initially defined against what you know now. Bring these conversations into product team meetings. Your personas will start to take on new life — far beyond a cardboard cut-out.
What is one thing you can do today to get to know your customers better?
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