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.