Can product managers predict the future? When it comes to customers, I often argue that the answer is “yes.” This is because product managers are skilled at anticipating what is up ahead — the problems that customers will face and the solutions they need. But seeing this does not require a crystal ball.
The best product managers do not need magic. They use customer conversations to see the future.
This is, of course, a challenge. Mostly because what customers say they want is often different from what they actually need. Our team at Aha! knows this challenge well — but we also have an advantage. Our customers are product and marketing experts. And every member of our Customer Success team is a former product or marketing manager.
It is easy for us to feel the customer’s pain because we have felt it too. But shared pain is not the only way our Aha! team uncovers what customers really want. Each teammate is deeply curious. That is why I asked them to share their best suggestions for teasing out what customers really want (versus what they say they want).
Here are the Aha! team’s strategies and advice for making the most of customer conversations:
Start with not knowing
“I like to start with the mindset that I actually do not know what customers want. For example, even though I am a former product manager, I know that each customer faces different market and organizational dynamics. This is why I steady myself with a not-knowing frame of mind before the conversation even starts.” — Tracy Singleton
Work back from the ending
“The most important thing is to understand the customer’s goals. What are they really trying to accomplish? Ask them where they want to end up, and then go from there.” — Shawn Zenz
Step into the shadows
“In my experience, almost nothing compares to having done the same job as our customers. But if that is not your situation, shadowing customers is the next best thing and can lead to similar insights. The key is to observe.” — Todd Meyer
Go through a typical day
“I like to ask customers to walk me through a typical day using our software. As they do, I ask them questions about why they are doing things the way they are. This usually uncovers the true challenges — customers are often surprised at what is uncovered too!” — Deirdre Clarke
Ask to see the work
“The best way to understand the customer is to see how they work — literally. Shoulder surf or ask them to share their screen, so you can see what tools they use to augment your product. You could even ask them to mock up what they would like your product to do, using a quick drawing tool.” — Perry Hurtt
Listen for patterns
“I love that the general guidance is to go ‘talk to customers,’ when in fact I learn nothing from talking. I learn by listening to customers — and not just the loudest one. If you listen to many customers, you can find patterns in what they say and uncover small and large ways you can help them.” — Karen Maslowski
Parrot answers back
“Once you have listened carefully to customer feedback, repeat it back to them. Then, gauge their reactions as you tell them what you heard. If you got it right, they will keep adding on (especially if the feedback is related to new functionality), telling you all the things it should do and exactly how they will use it. If they pause or say ‘hmm,’ then you either explained it wrong or you heard but did not understand what they were saying.” — Steve Dagless
Look for long-term solutions
“Customers often ask for a specific solution to a very specific issue. But before you move forward with that one-off solution, try to think long-term. What else is happening? Maybe the issue they are dealing with today is stemming from the processes or team structure they follow. Understand the full picture so you can offer a solution that will work long-term — not just right now.” — Austin Merritt
Let them correct you
“If you are still unsure what a customer really needs, try offering a sample solution — even if you know it is not quite right. Then, let them correct you and say what they would change. This gives them something to react to. Sometimes customers do not know exactly what is needed until they see something that they know will not work!” — Amy Woodham
You need to always be curious. Product managers ask lots of questions, identify the need, validate, and ask again.
But is the customer feedback mapping to what you are seeing elsewhere? Once you have some insights from the customer, back up those insights with data. Then, you can get a clear view of the work that needs to be prioritized. And you will be on your way to truly understanding and ultimately delivering what customers want.
What questions do you ask when working with customers?
We know product managers cry tears of joy when they use Aha!