Notes from 'Customer visits: Building better market focus'
The ever wise Mr. Saeed Khan recommended this to me when I mentioned I wanted to better understand the practice of discovering what customers value. The question, "what is value?" is all well and good to think and talk about, but it's not practical unless you can apply the answers to your day job.
The area of product management is one I haven't gotten a lot of exposure to, practically speaking. Specifically how one actually figures out what jobs customers do and why they do them is something that I need more understanding in. So here we are, spent some time reading (finally), and learned stuff.
Customer visits must have a program, an intent, a design - else they, too, are just a good idea that ends up producing waste. Being successful at these requires that facilitation and interviewing be core capabilities your organization fosters, paired with a designed intention to have an organizational culture focal around creating value for customers.
Recommendation: If you want a great take on how to be successful at making customer visits effective, this lays it all out in gory practical detail - with socio and technical covered well. Though written almost 30 years ago, I'd argue it's as relevant as ever - we continue to have a tendency toward technical information gathering while still being living human beings. The author does lean towards B2B (BTB, business-to-business), but I think you can still capture important learnings from his experiences. Interesting applications lie in the internal aspects of an organization - I found myself nodding quite a bit when applying my health check experiences against what he wrote.
Long notes...and they are long...
But perhaps buying the book isn't for you...these are my notes for future-me. I wrote a lot because a lot stood out loud and clear. Hope it helps!!
Off the bat, the author makes it clear that this is widely applicable across all sorts of industries, and that it effectively consists of intelligent interviewing.
"For the remainder of this book, I will assume that you accept the basic principle that business profits come from satisfying customer needs and that your concern lies not with justifying the need for a market orientation but with specific actions you can take, now, at your firm, to achieve it. Moreover, I will assume that your primary interest lies in tools that will build a customer focus as part of the larger effort to achieve a market orientation." (p.4)
'business culture committed to the continuous creation of superior value for customers'
and'org-wide generation of market intelligence pertaining to current and future customer needs, dissemination of the intelligence across departments, and org-wide responsiveness to it'.
"Understanding that market focus is a matter of business culture thus identifies the magnitude of the task facing you and your firm as you attempt to change." - boom!
"This is a radical notion: You cannot rely exclusively or largely on marketing personnel...to generate market intelligence. If you do, you fail the test: Your business is not going to be customer focused. Your employees, in particular your technical people, are not going to develop a shared commitment to customer satisfaction."
"...it is important to understand that a focus on quality that is not simultaneously a focus on the customer will be, at best, blind and, at worst, wrong headed."
"Without practical steps to move the org closer to the customer's perspective, the TQM process is vulnerable to becoming a new gloss on an old fallacy: an encouragement to focus on the thing you make rather than the need you fill."
"It is the thesis of this book that a simple, practical step that should be considered by any org that seeks to be market focused is to increase the number and range of employees who visit customers and improve the sophistication of these visits."
- The key decision makers must personally participate in the visits.
- The visits should be conducted by cross-functional teams.
- The visits ought to be organized as a program, complete with...
- stated (written) objectives
- a careful selection (sampling plan) of customers
- a discussion guide (and assigned roles for team members) linking objectives to interview conduct
- a (structured) plan for reporting the results
Richness (of alternative communication media) is a function of the amount and variety of information that can be conveyed. Specifically, research has shown that interactive face-to-face communication grows superior in effectiveness to the extent the information to be exchanged between two parties is complex, novel, or ambiguous.
e.g. "Vendor engineers tend to live in Lab World, whereas the customer's technical people tend to live in Task World. In Lab World, bits, bytes, and baud rate are a source of fascination and the focus of attention. The product itself is valuable and interesting. In Task World, the priority is to accomplish some job, and the product is merely a means to that end. The product and its underlying technology have value only insofar as they contribute to this task."
"A desk is a dangerous place from which to do business." :head-asplode:
"One of the most important messages in this book is that such an assumption (interviews must be done by interview experts, and not involve technical staff) can be dangerous and counterproductive... Although the importance of good interview skills cannot be denied, the overriding concern is to have the right people encounter customers firsthand."
"By contrast, when given appropriate leadership and guidance, engineers can naturally develop a customer focus if they have an opportunity to encounter diverse customers and build and test mental models of how the customer interacts with the product."
"And if scientists and engineers are not committed to this goal, it is surely not possible for total customer satisfaction to be added in to the product at some later point."
- Longer feedback loops, lossy information.
- Incentive structures generally do not favour "the kind of patient inquiry that good research demands."
- Heightened motivation to respond
- Increased potential for change
- More thorough understanding
- Heightened possibility of innovative solutions
- Deeper understanding
- Protection against partial understanding
- Heightened commitment and responsiveness
- Decreased bickering among departments
- Better marketing-R&D integration
"The key to conducting an effective program of visits is to have a clear idea of what you are trying to accomplish."
- Good: Identify, explore, describe, generate
- Bad: Select, evaluate, forecast, test
"...one of the surest paths to failure in research is trying to do too much. Even more dangerous is not having a clear direction."
"...you may discover that management expects or assumes that you will present confirmatory objectives (select, evaluate, forecast, test)...This is a recipe for failure. Experience suggests that you are going to get hurt if you proceed in good faith to conduct visits for the purpose of exploration and discovery, even as management expects you to bring home confirmatory evidence and hard data..."
e.g. in 1993 dollars, "Sometimes these managers think of $10,000 as the most anyone would ever want to spend on market research, whereas in fact it is close to the floor. Many market research objectives require $50,000 to $500,000 to be fully addressed (particularly, those that involve a test, selection, or prediction)."
"Effective visit programs tend to have at most two or three research objectives. ... Firms that fail to empower their program coordinators sufficiently will suffer accordingly."
"Interviews...can be like 'drinking from a fire hose.' Without clear objectives, it may be very difficult to make sense of the wealth of input received from customers."
"The key point to remember is that the selection of customers to visit is a make-or-break activity for the visit program. ...first law of sampling in customer visit programs is garbage in, garbage out."
- garbage in, garbage out (at least the customer should be relevant to the set objectives)
- bigger samples are better than smaller samples (min 10-12 customer firms; 20-30 good enough for most research)
- sample size increases have diminishing returns (e.g. 60-100; caveat, multi-market studies or major business plan overhauls)
- Review segmentation scheme: (i.e. how the business differentiates customers) with the point being to remind you of important sources of diversity within your customer base
- Select types of customers: can't visit all types - not enough money/time, and you need a good statistical sample size per customer type
- Check feasibility: what are your practical constraints (time/money) vs. your set objectives? If you cannot escape time or money constraints, revisit the segmentation scheme - creatively; with an understanding of statistics!
- Define the (customer) job roles to be in included: You cannot visit Boeing; you must visit an individual at Boeing. Be consistent in who you include across firms. This seems like not that significant of a step, until you consider...
"In fact, there is probably no more disappointing feeling, across the whole spectrum of customer visit activity, than travelling at considerable time and expense to a distant city, sitting down at a conference table, and realizing within the first 5 minutes that you are talking to an individual who cannot help you. This is an unrecoverable error that no amount of interviewing skill can correct." (p.58) lol
"...interview in which the vendor's primary objective is to listen and learn. You want to be very clear that the purpose of this visit is to listen to customers so as to better understand their needs."
"Please recognize that most people do not like to show up for a meeting that has a vague or obscure purpose. This is part cynicism ("Will my time be wasted?") and part genuine anxiety ("I don't know how to prepare myself"). The brief agenda plays an important role in assuaging this uncertainty."
"...there is one very important advantage that BTB marketers do have: your customers need you to succeed."
Note the customer + job mental model!
"...if your products do not actually perform any useful function for customers, then, once more, you have larger problems than are dealt with in this book..."
The people who must use the information that will result from the visits should be involved in gathering that information.
"Bad meetings generally result either from the lack of an agenda or a chair who fails to exercise leadership. A good interview requires the same things as a good meeting: a feasible agenda and appropriate leadership. The discussion guide serves as an agenda for the visit."
- Circulate early drafts internally for comments suggestions.
- Structure needs to balance generality and specificity; it's a set of prompts and reminders, not a script
- Arrangement of topics should promote a smooth flow of conversation, logical-like
- Pilot the guide with local 'safe/familiar' customers
- Be flexible! It's not the ten commandments; if the interview jumps around, that's ok - just ensure all the topics get covered sufficiently
- For guides, less is more
- Know your priorities, what is essential?
- 2hr max; design & structure it (open - building rapport/safe space, middle - info gathering/getting answers, close - wind down intensity/last 5-10m can often be the most insightful, so leave space);
- tl;dr: all details matter here, the chapter goes through it exhaustively (e.g. make a tour part of the visit)
"I also encourage you to approach interviewing as more art than science. Think of it as a craft or skill; do not approach it as a process that can be precision engineered. Think of the interview as a messy, human event, full of surprises, and ultimately uncontrollable.There are rules of thumb, practice does lead to improvement, and procedures can be developed to improve your conduct of interviews on average and over time. But a good qualitative interview will always remain an improvisational, extemporaneous event." (p.90)
"Finally, let me warn you away from a tempting but ultimately bankrupt solution to the anxiety you may feel concerning interviews. ... that you can manipulate the outcomes of an interpersonal encounter if only you grasp certain techniques... I strongly discourage you from seeking or following advice on how to manipulate people successfully." ...Because people know when they are being manipulated by a salesperson, and it makes them mad.
Moderator skills (p.92) - probing, establishing a rapport quickly, tenacity & fluency
"The most common mistake made by beginning moderators is a failure to probe. The ability to ask probing questions is something every moderator should strive to develop. To probe means asking for clarification when an answer is opaque, difficult to follow, or uncertain in its implications. It means recognizing when your original question has not really been answered, and finding a way to ask that question again in a more effective way. It means pursuing a topic in depth rather than settling for a superficial overview."
"...easy to use is probably the single most unilluminating phrase in all of engineering today!"
- Grasping and retaining the specificity of what the customer said; staying alert to context, capturing this
- Recognizing and retaining the range of customer responses discovered over the course of the interviews - i.e. working to defeat our own analytical biases
- Understanding responses in depth - tying not just words but body language; what are they really saying?
- Draw connections to previously made remarks; share these realizations with customers
"You can spend your entire working life getting better at asking productive questions." (p.103)
- Bad: What features would you like to see?
- Bad: How much would you be willing to pay?
- Good: What does your customer demand from you?
- Bad: What sorts of information do you require when you have just arrived in a strange city?
- Good: Think back to the last time you arrived in a strange city and found yourself lacking some piece of information - what was that information, and how did you go about acquiring it?