Avoid excuses for not conducting customer visits

If you want to be a bad product manager, come up with lots of excuses for not visiting customers. You are busy at the office — there are too many meetings and projects and can’t miss any of them. Your customers are located far away and travel budgets are tight. Your customers are too busy to talk to you. You don’t have any customers yet. Your sales staff doesn’t want you visiting customers. Sure, it would be nice to visit customers, but with all these impediments, it’s just not worth the effort. And besides, visiting customers isn’t that important anyways, right?

If you want to be a good product manager, find ways around all of the excuses for not visiting customers. There is nothing more valuable that a product manager can do than to spend time understanding a customer’s needs and problems. One hour with a customer will provide more benefit to your product than dozens of hours of meetings at the office.

There will always be reasons not to visit customers, though a good product manager will instead remember the myriad of benefits which come from customer visits. Here are some common roadblocks and how to address them:

  • “But I don’t have a budget to visit customers.” It is amazing that an organization would spend well over a hundred thousand dollars on salary, benefits, and overhead for a product manager, plus much more on actually developing products, yet not provide a small fraction of that for undoubtedly the most important part of the product manager’s responsibilities. Product managers who blame lack of funding for not visiting customers are not trying or looking hard enough. The money is there, it just may need to come from other places. Find customers within a short drive — even without requesting reimbursement. Add on an extra day of travel to other trips — to conferences, to other offices for internal meetings, to training — and visit customers in that area. Stay with family and friends to save hotel costs. Visit several customers in one trip, saving on airfare and other travel expenses. Include customer visit expenses in your business cases and requests for project funding.
  • “But my customers are too busy to talk with me.” While some customers may legitimately use this as an excuse, most customers would be more than happy for the chance to speak with someone from “headquarters” to provide feedback about the product. Make sure you explain the purpose of your visit and offer the customer something in return, whether that be just the opportunity for them to express their concerns to someone with the power to make changes, or a token of your appreciation that you provide to them for their time. Salespeople often know off the top of their head a handful of customers who would love to provide feedback and are more than willing to give up an hour or even more.
  • “But I don’t have any current customers.” It is not just current customers you should be visiting. Former customers, prospective customers, those who purchase competitors’ products — all of these should also be part of your regular research schedule. You should not avoid visits simply because you do not have current customers. In fact, it is probably more important to spend time conducting visits and research if you do not have current customers, as you need to understand why your product is not selling! If your product is not yet released, the more early research and customer understanding you conduct, the better chance you will have to make your product a success.
  • “But my sales staff doesn’t want me visiting customers.” It is important for your sales organization to understand the purpose of your visits and support you in this endeavor. Find out the reason for their objections — it could just be a lack of understanding about what you are trying to accomplish. Ride along on some sales calls first to observe the sales process and show them you are interested in learning more about what they do. Use the time between calls or over meals to discuss issues and build rapport with your sales staff. Explain how you conducting a customer visit is different than a sales call, and why both are important. Do not use an initial objection as an excuse to stop trying to visit customers. Instead, use it as the beginning of a conversation. If done correctly, your sales staff will be one of your biggest supporters in arranging visits and will be thrilled when you choose to visit a customer in their territory.

All product managers — good or bad — may face these or other roadblocks to conducting customer visits. What separates the good from the bad is that a good product manager will face these impediments directly and figure out ways around them, while a bad product manager will let these prevent them from conducting customer visits. Remember that the most important responsibility of a product manager is to understand the market, the customers, the unmet needs and the unsolved problems — and that one of the best ways to do that is to conduct customer visits.

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15 thoughts on “Avoid excuses for not conducting customer visits

  1. How about this excuse: I’ve done a large number of customer visits, and they are all telling me the same thing – they want a feature which engineering is currently working on, but has not launched yet. All other features are low priority compared to this one, in the customer’s eye.

    What is the point of visiting more customers if you know what they are going to say? I’d rather focus on motivating people internally, helping to get the release out the door, and then move into a new research cycle once the customer has had the chance to sate themselves on the one feature they want.

  2. Jeff,
    You are a spot-on. In my experience I can always find a reason not to do customer visits, but when I get out on the road and see customers I always come back with new ideas and renewed energy to my job right.

    I started with a new company (Alianza) two weeks ago and am already planning to make customer visits. We do not have too many customers yet but I know that a big part of my “getting up to speed” will be watching customers use the products. I will not likely have a large travel budget this year, but I can guarantee I will use it all!

    Great post! Thanks.

  3. John — I can see your point. However, there’s still value in visiting customers to understand more about their needs, environment, workflow, etc. Even if your product never comes up at all, there’s plenty to discuss. You could spend the entire visit just talking about competitors or other related products, for example, without ever getting into the features of your product.

    I also doubt that motivating people internally and visiting customers are mutually exclusive — doing one shouldn’t prevent you from doing the other. In fact, you need to be able to, because both of those things you will be doing on an ongoing basis as long as you’re a product manager.

    Customer visits are not just to discover the next feature to put into your product. They help you understand the market, the unmet needs, potential new product opportunities, alternative uses for your product, emerging trends, and a whole host of other things that are not directly about your product’s features. If you get in the habit of regularly visiting customers — regardless of what they’re saying about your product — you will be in a better position to take advantage of opportunities and get ahead of the curve, rather than being in a situation where your customer visits result in requests for an obvious and vitally important feature which you should have included in the first place.

  4. Jeff,

    Great article. A few things I have learnt over years of doing customer visits are:
    1) Refrain from visiting your pet customers who want to rave about how great your product is but visit those who may not be happy with your product or those that are not using your product to find out why.

    2) Try to take your team members (developers, QA, documentation or product marketing) with you especially on local trips that are a short drive away so that they get to listen to the customers as well. But no matter what you do, never take a developer only on one customer visit – otherwise that one customer will become the entire world to development. It is better not to take them to any customers than taking them on one customer visit.

    3) Set the expectations with customer before you get there on what you want to discuss. You want to make sure you get to talk to people who will help you understand what the customer does in their business and then with your product. Talking to a guy in the trenches will not get you the big picture and talking to the VP of engineering will not get you the real state of affairs in the trenches. Talking to both will help if that is what your visit objectives are.

    4) Never take your laptop with you so that you are not drawn into the rat hole of demoing your product or educating the customer on some product feature. Your objective on the visit should be that of an explorer and not to be sales support or a trainer. These should be done at a later time but not on a customer visit where you are trying to understand the customer’s business and where your product fits in

  5. Jeff,

    Great post. I agree that customer visits should be in the regular schedule of a Product Manager. What do you recommend for new Product Managers like me, whose product is not selling and have less customers ? How can I find the customers of the competition and the right contact within the organization? Thanks for the post and I look forward to hearing from you.

  6. I am a desktop support technician / geek of all trades who has recently been shanghaied into technical product management. My product is a specialized tool which enables our phone representatives to perfom an extremely difficult technical service for my company’s customers.

    Naturally, our phone agents are outsourced, which means my company is the outsource provider’s customer. Also, since I am a contractor, my company is technically my client.

    My product’s goal is to enable is my client’s vendor’s agents (essentially my product’s customer) to provide these services to their employer’s client’s customers (also my client’s customers).

    Does this ever start to make sense?

    Basically, my job is to be a bleeding edge domain expert, to guide the development of my product, and of course, to translate between technical, business, and customer.

    To tie this in to the topic at hand I recently had the opportunity to travel to meet some of the agents who would be actually using my product. I was able to collect a great deal of information that I’d have never received had I asked over the phone.

    You see, the vendor prefers it’s operations managers to do all the talking, and much gets filtered out through the 6 layers of management between me and the agents. In a situation like this, meeting in person is the only way to cut the crap and get real answers straight from the source.

    Hearing agents tell me that the product I’ve inherited is essentially garbage, and their insight on what needs to happen to fix it was infinitely more useful than the ‘everything’s ok’ spiel we were getting over the phone.

    One thing to add – Bond with your customer and you will understand their needs better. If all else fails, try beer.

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