One of the core activities for Product Management is to get out of the office and gain first hand understanding of needs of customers and partners, and other issues in the market There’s little that can substitute for good field research.
Face to face meetings are difficult
Having said that, getting out of the office to collect primary information is not always possible. There are many reasons including lack of travel budget, lack of time and distributed teams (on your side as well as for your customer/partner).
And it’s this last situation, with geographically distributed team that makes face-to-face meetings incredibly difficult.
But virtual meetings are no substitute to live, face to face meetings. You can’t read body language over the phone/web; you can’t just get up and "whiteboard" a discussion topic; you can’t make sure the attendees aren’t ignoring you and simply working on email.
I recently completed a series of in-depth customer engagements (2-3 hours minimum per customer + follow ups) for some new product areas I’m researching. With the exception of one customer, all of the meetings were done via phone and webinar.
There were several reasons for this that included all of the reasons listed above.
In a few cases, the customer team members were geographically separate — London and New York, Boston and Dallas, Seattle and San Francisco — so it was impossible to actually be face-to-face with the customer.
In other cases, the meetings were broken over 2 sessions to accommodate customer schedules. It’s difficult for many customers to find 2 or 3 hour uninterrupted blocks of time.
So, whether we wanted it or not, we had to deal with these issues and still get the research done. Here’s how we did it.
As with any task, proper planning is key.
1. Clearly identify your goals.
- What are the key questions that must be answered from these customer meetings?
- Think of the decisions you will need to make with the collected data and then use that to formalize the questions.
- What teams or stakeholders will need to use the findings of the research?
2. Who can provide the needed information?
- Who are the people at your customer sites that you want to speak with?
- e.g. What are their roles? Are they the users, buyers, managers etc? And in the case of the users, are there different types of users? e.g. administrators, business analysts, developers etc.?
- Who specifically are the targets for your discussions?
3. Are there specific customer profiles you must speak with?
- New vs. longtime customers?
- Large vs. small
- Vertical specific?
- Use case specific?
- Technology specific?
4. How many customer meetings do you need to hold to collect the necessary amount of information?
- If your objective is to speak to enough customers to start to identify patterns amongst them, then you should target at least 5-7 customers of a similar profile.
- Depending on your product, market, target audience and objectives, you may need more than that to get the data.
Getting customers to agree to meet — particularly for anything over 30-60 minutes — is like a sales process. You need to start with 2x-3x the number of customers you need to eventually speak with, and then get the necessary number to commit to meetings.
If you need to speak with 8-10 customers, you’ll probably have to solicit between 20-30 customers. Some may not want to speak with you :-(, for others the timing will be bad, and yet for others, particularly ones with distributed teams themselves, the logistics of coordinating schedules may be a problem. Timing — holidays (summer and end of year) as well as seasonal or quarterly busy periods — will also contribute to your success rate.
To maximize your chances, do the following:
1. Prepare a brief outline – 1-2 pages maximum – describing:
- the purpose of the meeting,
- the attendees from your side (product management, engineering etc.)
- who you want to speak with on the customer side
- the key questions you are looking to discuss,
- what you will do with the information you collect
Usually customers will be interested in having the meeting if the topic is relevant to them, AND if they know something useful will be done with the information, such as influence into the product roadmap.
2. Leverage personal relationships with customers
If you don’t have strong personal relationships with a number of customers, you’re not speaking to enough customers! :-) But if you do – and let’s assume you do – then contact some of them as a starting point in your recruiting process.
Not only will you increase your chances of getting commitment to the meetings, but these customers will likely make time for you so that you can get your first meetings completed in short order.
Be warned though, don’t abuse the relationships by constantly asking these customers for meetings. Not only will some of them start pushing back, but you also risk skewing your findings by talking to the same customer set time and time again.
3. Involve your sales teams in this process
Send an email or set up a short call with various sales people to let them know what you are doing and why. Ask for their help in making introductions to customers. Share the outline document with them and let them know that they can pass it onto their customers for background information.
4. Connect with the customer directly to assess their suitability
If you get leads (from sales reps or others in your company) contact the customers directly and have a brief information call with them. This will give you a chance to answer their questions, but also to gauge them to see if they fit the profile(s) you defined in your planning process.
This is particularly important if you are planning extended (> 1hour) meetings. You don’t want to waste your time (or theirs) by having a lengthy call and realizing half-way through that their input is not meaningful to your research.
Now that we have Planning & Recruiting down…
In Part 2 we will learn How to Hold that Kickass Virtual Meeting.
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Saeed has over 20 years of experience in the software industry with experience in , product management, product marketing, development and education. Having worked in both Toronto and Silicon Valley, at both technology startups and public companies, Saeed has contributed to the success of a broad range of organizations. He has written a number of articles for Pragmatic Marketing’s publications and is co-founder of ProductCamp Toronto. Saeed is based in Toronto Canada, and can be reached via his blog at http://www.onproductmanagement.net
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