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.
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).
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.
Holding the virtual meeting
After all this effort, make sure you make the best of the time you have with the customer. The fact that they are virtual means you have to keep them engaged during the meeting or they will drift off and do other things and you won’t get the information you need.
I had one virtual meeting where one of the participants was furiously typing away in the background. Clearly they were not paying attention to what we were discussing. When I mentioned the background typing noise — hoping they’d stop and listen — the person apologized and announced he’d mute his phone! Not a good sign. Needless to say we didn’t get much from that person.
So here’s what you can do to maximize the value of the virtual meeting.
1. Guide the discussion with a simple slide deck
The purpose of the deck (prepared in advance) is to structure and guide the discussion and should contain the following:
- Agenda with topics of discussion and allocated time
- 1 slide per discussion topic
- Key questions to answer for each topic
This deck should NOT be a marketing or detailed technical slide deck. That’s a mistake that many people make. The purpose of the meeting is to hear from the customer, not to present to them.
The agenda should list the allocated time for each discussion topic and this will be used to control the discussion and ensure the meeting time is used wisely.
The key questions come from the planning phase of the project.
Overall, keep the deck short and simple. It should facilitate discussion, not be the focus of it.
2. Appoint a lead speaker from your side
If you have multiple people from your company attending the call (in my calls, we had up to 6 people from our company), appoint 1 person as the leader. It will likely be the Product Manager, but whomever it is, set the ground rule (in advance amongst your team) that the leader guides the discussion, and keeps it moving forward. Others can certainly chime in and ask the customer follow up or clarification questions as needed.
This has two benefits. First it stops people from your side from stepping on top of one another during the session; and second, for the customer, it provides some coherence in the conversation flow. Overall, it keeps the discussion organized and flowing.
3. Appoint a time keeper
Have someone (other than the leader), be a timekeeper. Whether the meeting is short or long, this person’s role is to watch the clock and remind the leader when the agenda is falling behind schedule. The agenda timings are not set in stone, but if time is short, use it to focus on the important areas of discussion.
4. Record the call/webinar
Something you can do with a virtual meeting that you can’t do with a face-to-face meeting is record the entire event. Recording the event frees you (and others) from furiously taking notes during the event. I’ve only met a few people who can take good notes in real-time. One had a previous career as a stenographer!
Make sure you get the customer’s permission to record the event. Make it clear to them that the recording is only for note taking purposes and it won’t be distributed or used for any other reasons.
Some customers may decline but most won’t, and take my word for it, particularly for a longer meeting, when you review the recording after the fact, you’ll hear comments or statements from the conversation that you missed when it was live.
5. If taking notes, have more than 1 person take notes
If the customer declines to be recorded, then have at least 2 note takers ready and waiting. Why two? Neither note taker will be able to capture 100% of the call. With 2 people taking notes, each will capture points that the other missed.
Also, when consolidating notes after the meeting, if there are discrepancies between the two, it may identify areas of confusion or that need follow-up with the customer.
6. Have interactive exercises to collect input
A dialogue and Q&A type meeting will help you collect information, but information can be collected in a variety of ways. And particularly for a more in-depth (i.e. longer) meeting, exercises help break the tedium of a long discussion.
Exercises can be quite varied, but anything that helps collect data you need in your research, AND is simple to execute online is fair game.
In my work, we conducted some simple stack-ranking exercises of potential product features — including items that the customers had raised themselves earlier in the call. This was well received by the customers and it helped us collect some quantitative information that we could use in our requirements process.
The kinds of exercises are up to you, but make sure they are easy to understand and execute online, and the collected data can be consolidated easily and analysed across the customers you speak with.
7. Finish on time
This goes back to point 3 above (Appoint a time keeper), but make sure you finish on time, or worst case, if you see you are running behind, ask in advance if the customer can extend the call by 5-10 minutes. Most customers I’ve met are very busy and don’t have a lot of extra time.
Additionally, it’s unprofessional in my view to let your own meeting run over. If you can’t finish the full meeting in the allotted time, AND the customer can’t stay on, thank them for their time and either request a short follow up, or collect the rest of your info via email.
Once you’ve completed each call, hold a short debrief with your team to review the call and identify anything notable that was learned, as well as anything that should be improved on future calls. This is especially important in the first couple of virtual meetings you have with the team. Once you work out the kinks, you’ll find the meetings flow well, end in a timely manner, and you collect valuable information from your customers.
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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