The Product Managers’ Guide to Understanding What Customers Really Want

“Dear customer, what do you want?” is a tough question that many product managers struggle with. We’ve drawn up a guide to help you uncover the answer.

Wouldn’t you love a crystal ball that shows you exactly what will succeed in the market and delight your customers? That would make deciding the product roadmap and features as a product manager so much easier. Sales, engineering, and management already have their own ideas on how your product should look like. Shouldn’t your customers also have a say in this? Of course, they should. But how do you find out what customers really want? Hint: They might not even know it themselves. We’re here to solve the puzzle of customer research.

The Challenges of Customer Research

If all entrepreneurs would simply ask customers what they want and then implement just that, most of the greatest products and inventions in our history wouldn’t exist.

Henry Ford asked his would-be clients what they wanted, and all he heard was “a faster horse.” That’s because people only know what they’ve seen and used. Naturally, they think of upgrades to existing products. Back in the late 19th century, people couldn’t fathom the possibility of a motorized vehicle. What customers wanted was very different from what they actually needed. And that is still the case today.

So, asking customers what they want will provide you with limited information. Nonetheless, it’s not useless to ask this question. You can gather valuable feedback on your existing products and how they might fall short. After all, your customers are the experts in the job they’re trying to get done with the help of your product.

However, when you’re trying to decide what to build next, customers will likely provide you with misleading information which will limit your options to the things that already exist. In this case, you should ask a different question: What problem are we solving?

No matter if you’re trying to improve your product or looking to build a new one, customer research is the place to start. Let’s look at how you can approach it the right way.

How to Do Customer Research the Right Way

The most common shortcut that efficient product managers take is to ask the people in their company who already spend the most time with clients: the sales team. They can be a great resource. However, like in the telephone game, what you hear from them will likely not be exactly what your customers said. Salespeople are trained to listen to sell, not to listen to learn.

We aren’t suggesting that you should cut out sales entirely from your customer research process. Quite the opposite! Rather, all departments involved with the product (marketing, sales, engineering, …) should be included. This way, many questions can be answered at once, such as “What should we charge? and “How should we best market our product?” When you involve everyone, you’ll also stand out for your excellent stakeholder management skills.

Once you’ve assembled your research team, you’ll want to spend time with your customers when they are actually using your product. Ideally, you can meet them in their environment, be it at home, work, or another place. They’ll feel much more comfortable there than in an artificial situation and will be more likely to open up.

Now, your task is to watch and listen. Refrain from teaching and talking about your product because you’ll want to uncover the unbiased thoughts of your customers. Get yourself into a “not-knowing” frame of mind, where you’re free of assumptions and judgment. And, always stay curious! You’ll be amazed by how much you can learn.

What You Want to Find Out

Having set the intentions and process for your customer research, here’s what you’ll want to find out. The goal is not only to learn how your customers are using your product but also to gain insights about their lives in general. In short, you’ll want to discover what problem you’re solving for them.

Here are three main areas to focus your questions on:

The Present

Ask your customers to walk you through a typical day using the product. You can find out what is and is not working right now. Why are they doing things the way they are at the moment? What alternatives have they tried? And how did that go?

The Future

Here’s where you concentrate on the things your customers are ultimately trying to do. What do they want to achieve? And why is it important for them?

The Constraints and Requirements

Your clients aren’t using your product in a vacuum. It integrates into their lives with existing processes and tools. What are the constraints your customers are experiencing, for example, in terms of costs, time, integrations? What are the must-haves that they absolutely need?

A good practice for your customer interviews is to immediately repeat back to them what they just told you. You’ll want to double check that you understood them correctly. If you have, they’ll probably even keep talking and add on more useful information for you. If you aren’t sure what your clients meant, don’t be shy to ask follow-up questions. You really want to get to the bottom of things. “Why” is the most important question you can ask!

How to Deal With Feature Requests

It’s common that customers outright ask you for new features during the research process. As a good product manager, you’ve probably already learned to neither accept nor decline these immediately.

First, you’ll have to explore the real motivations behind them. Ask your customers what they are trying to achieve with the new feature? How would they use it? Also, consider if the feature will benefit all customers (not only this particular client)? Will it benefit our company?

If it’s just a “nice to have,” is not something your company can make money with or is not aligned with your product’s overall vision, then this feature might not be the right fit for your product. In the end, remember that it’s okay to say no.

A good idea is to stay clear from product features during your customer conversations in the first place. Instead, you can focus the discussion around outcomes and what they are trying to achieve.

How to Use Your Data to Find Out What Customers Really Want

Now, that you’ve gathered some brand new insights about your customers, it’s time to turn the data into action. Our advice is to gather enough data, then make a decision to move forward. You can never be 100% certain if what you’re doing is going to be a success. Don’t get stuck in analysis-paralysis.

Test as quickly as possible by creating a mockup, prototype, or MVP that you can ship to your clients. Your customers need something to react on. Sometimes they don’t know what they want until they see something they don’t want. The faster you can repeat the cycle of customer research and learning, the better. If you can, test more than one idea. That will increase your chances of success.

Wrapping It Up

The great challenge for product managers is to strike a balance between giving your customers what they want while ensuring that it’s the right thing for your product and business. There will always be disappointed parties on both sides, but it’s worth it.

Having real customer data to back up your decisions doesn’t only make you look good in front of your boss and the whole team. It also increases the likelihood that your next release will be met with open arms from your clients. Even though customers might not always know what they want, they surely know when something is right for them.

The Product Managers’ Guide to Understanding What Customers Really Want
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Julia PhraseApp Content Team
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