Product Manager to Customer: “What Do You Really Want?”
June 14, 2017

Product Manager to Customer: “What Do You Really Want?”

by Ron Yang

Listen to the customer. This is the advice given to many product managers. But what if you are listening — yet hearing all the wrong things?

I ran into this issue when I was leading product at an e-commerce company that offered pre-selected clothing via subscription service. Initial feedback from the sales team was clear — customers complained about the lack of variety, asking for more clothing styles. Thankfully, the merchandising team was open to making a change. New shipments started going out with a wider variety of styles.

But the same complaints continued to roll in. I was listening to sales but not truly hearing the customer. The internal feedback was “more variety,” but after connecting with customers directly, I learned that control was the real issue. So we rolled out a new feature that allowed customers to select which styles ended up in their box. This was what they wanted but could not articulate.

Customers cannot always explain the solution — but they can describe the pain they are experiencing. So, are you listening to what they are really saying?

It can be difficult, especially if you are wading through ideas and requests from internal teams. Marketing, sales, engineering… everyone has an opinion on how to improve the product — often influenced by internal pressures.

You can spend so much time dealing with organizational issues that you can never get grounded in what the customer wants and needs.

One way to improve your ability to really hear the customer is by doing a better job of capturing their If you can capture and prioritize those customer ideas, it will dictate what you build in a meaningful way.

Of course, uncovering what people want is not always easy. Here is a good framework for product managers:

Eliminate the go-between
Too often product managers use the sales team as a proxy for feedback. This can lead to feedback passed along with comments colored by the person sharing. When you set up an ideas portal, you have more chances to discover the subtext of what customers need because you can interact with them directly.

Embrace two-way conversations
Some customer comments might leave you thinking, “Huh?!” This can be a good thing because it may pave the way for a meaningful conversation. Do not brush off what you do not understand. Stay curious and ask your customer lots of questions so you can get to the heart of what vexes them.

Maintain strategic focus
Not every feature request — or even most of them — will align with your strategy. Ask yourself, “Does this align with our vision and goals?” This will keep you focused. The more you listen, the more you can identify patterns. You will see the pain points that come up again and again and how you can help solve them.

Product managers who do not listen to customers (willfully or not) are missing out on a critical tool for building a lovable product.

Our product team at Aha! makes a point of listening to our customers directly. We use our own ideas management technology and have a “no unreviewed requested features” goal. We set this goal because submitted product ideas reveal a lot about our customers.

As you can imagine, not every idea is a winner or even feasible to implement. But we know that when we do a better job listening, we can set a product plan based on what customers are really asking for.

How do you capture customer ideas and learn what they really want?

Ron Yang

About Ron Yang

Ron builds lovable products. He is the VP of Product Management at Aha! — Ron has more than 15 years of experience in entrepreneurship and leading product teams. Previously, Ron founded and sold his own company and has been on the founding team of multiple venture-backed companies.

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