rprins…you can conduct an amazing and often eye-opening customer interview and site visit.

This doesn’t come as a surprise to most professional product managers, but in a recent conversation with a long-time partner of ours, I was surprised that they weren’t doing it.  The more I thought about it, the more I realized every product manager would agree that one of the most critical components of product planning is conducting site visits and customer interviews, yet many don’t actually do them.  Being self-guided, most product managers have the ability to prioritize site visits, they just don’t.

There is a set of bank regulations often referred to as “Know Your Customer.” In bank regulation context that refers to a bank’s process of identifying their clients to make sure they know with whom they are doing business. Maybe product management needs a set of “Know Your Market” regulations. (Bear with me, this is just an illustration; I know product managers hate regulations.) If there was a regulation on product management like there is on our banking customers, maybe more product managers would stand up, back away from Internet research/requirements writing/sales support/product testing/budget planning and go talk to customers or potential customers.  Because when product managers know who they are building products for, it’s good for everyone.

If you don’t have the time or budget to go visit your customers, phone interviews can be equally impactful, but only if you follow the cardinal rule – for that phone call or that visit, the customer is the expert.  When you allow the customer to be the expert, they will tell you how it is at their office and in their job.  They may also tell you stories of peers or counterparts or other vendors who operate in and around your product.  You have to allow the conversation to be meandering and natural for the customer.  You have come in armed with probing questions to get them talking, but once they are sharing freely, you’ll get an amazing amount of real information.  You’re not an investigative reporter from the local news station.  You don’t want your customer to be defensive.  You just need to help them get comfortable with talking to you.  While they are talking, you take notes and circle back to ask for more details, but you have to wait for breaks in the conversation.

Site visits aren’t always about data.  Sometimes it is just about explaining how your product and changes to your product are made.  One of my favorite stories was about a product manager who went onsite and noticed a user was reticent to suggest a change to the product.  When our product manager said, “Feel free to submit product change requests any time.”  The user’s face turned to shock and said, “We can do that?”

Oh and always, always, always ask “Why?” Good product requirements are written using the standard “who-what-why” of user stories.  The “who” and “what” are often very easy to identify when you’re talking about new features or functionality, but it can be nearly impossible to write a good “why” if you haven’t spent the time getting to know your market.  Just remember, when you are trying to get to know someone, no one likes a know-it-all.  Let your customer be the expert, and you’ll be amazed at how willing they will be to make you better at your job.