The single most important skill a product manager brings to their team is their ability to interact with customers. Regularly calibrating and honing your customer intuition is a vital contributor to a product team’s success. Many teams suffer from lack of customer interaction, so I decided to write this series hoping to break down customer research into bite size pieces to make it a little less intimidating. The key is understanding the different types of customer research—the tools in your tool belt—and then making a habit of speaking with your customers regularly.

Why is good customer research so elusive?

If customer research is so important, then why do so many companies and teams struggle to do it regularly?

First, it’s an uncomfortable experience! Good customer research can require the techniques of a private investigator, getting to the truth of how someone feels about your product or a particular problem. And then there is this thing called “bias”…. How do you make sure you don’t ask questions that “lead the witness?” Or how do you ensure that the customer isn’t telling you exactly what you want to hear? 

Second, ignorance is bliss! If you don’t know what your customers want or how they truly feel, then you can continue to flesh out opinions and develop features that you believe are important. After all, what if you find out that your customers don’t like your product? Or what if you find out that a feature you’ve spent thousands of dollars developing isn’t exciting to your customers and they really want something else? Would you change course?

Types of Customer Research

One of the most helpful ways to think about customer research is to fit it in the frame of Steve Blank’s Four Steps of the Epiphany. Understanding where you are in the product lifecycle helps you understand what type of customer research you should be focusing your time on.

Source: Source: Blank, Steve. The Four Steps to the Epiphany (p. 25). K&S Ranch.

Type #1: Customer Discovery

If your product is still struggling with product-market fit, then you likely don’t have a full grasp of the problems that your product solves for your customers. You likely find yourself in the first cycle of Steve Blank’s diagram above: Customer discovery. Within your company, you may talk about your target market with broad terms like, “People who care about crypto” or “Companies that want better visibility into their finances.” If you identify your customers in this way internally, then it’s extremely important that you start the messy journey of customer discovery. In fact, I truly believe your product’s success depends on it. So how do you know if you’ve properly defined your target customers?

How do I know if I’ve defined my target customer(s) well enough?

This is a question I regularly run into with clients large and small. Short answer: When you (as a product manager or founder) can write a paragraph about each customer segment easily. If you can’t do that, you don’t know your customers well enough. Time for some customer discovery research!

When you can easily write a paragraph about each customer segment, that means you truly understand your target customers.

How do I carry out customer discovery research?

Customer discovery is the least structured form of customer research. Our customer discovery process at KREE consists of a prompt of high-level discussion points (5-10 questions) that are then asked informally to a customer over a video or phone call. This “prompt” is not a script. It provides guiding questions to draw from, but we regularly go off-script to dive deeper if customer responses provoke other follow-up questions. Think of a customer discovery interview as a less-formal version of a 60 Minutes on CBS News interview. There is a loose structure to the questions, but there is room for follow-up and impromptu deep-dives.

These types of conversations are problem-focused. Some example questions could be:

  • What problems do you face when it comes to…?
  • What are you doing today to resolve those problems?
  • How do those problems affect your goals in this area? 
  • What are you trying to accomplish when this becomes an issue?
  • If you could wave a magic wand to make any problem go away in relation to …, what would you wave it at?

While you go through the discovery process, it’s imperative that after each customer interaction, you analyze whether each customer is actually part of your target market. As you go through about 5-10 interviews, you should be able to quickly recognize when someone is not your target market. The interview feels different. They don’t experience the same problems as the others. It doesn’t fit with the others.

“Understand the problem so well that you can innovate.”

– Mike Murray

Now, one word of caution here: Customer discovery interviews are more art than science. Be fluid in your conversations. The key is asking questions about pains and understanding problems. You are looking for patterns. As these patterns emerge, they will shape your questions in subsequent interviews until you start to hear the same things.

Once you understand the problems, then you can better innovate solutions to help address those needs. More to come soon!

Published On: March 10th, 2021 / Categories: Customer Research, Product Managers / Tags: , , /

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