14 Mar

Channel your inner toddler

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When my son was a toddler, his favorite question was “Why?”  Here is a typical conversation:

Me (getting him ready to go out the door): “Let’s go buddy, put your rainboots on!”

Him:  “Why?”

Me: “Because it’s raining out.”
Him: “Why?”

Me:  “Because the water vapor in the air needed to be released.”  (Yes.  I really said that.  It’s never too early to teach them a little meteorology, right?)

Him: “Why?”

You get the idea.

And while my strategy was admittedly not that successful in getting him to put his @#^&!$ boots on, it did teach him a lot about how the world works.

In fact, what always got me about these conversations was how deeply and inevitably we ended up in the realms of topics like thermodynamics, astrophysics, or philosophy. (“Why IS it impolite to throw your peas at the wall?”)

I’ve always been pleasantly surprised by how quickly one can get down to fundamentals with a (rather annoying) series of “why” questions.

This isn’t a new idea.  It was famously part of Toyota’s management methodology breakthrough, which advocated asking “why” five times to get to the root of a particular problem.

Likewise, I have found it to be a surprisingly simple and effective way to get to the heart of customer feedback.

The challenge, after all, is in separating what customers ASK FOR (features) from what they really NEED (solutions) in achieving their goals. Asking “why” can get you the insight you need.

Consider this example conversation:

Customer: “What we really need is a button that lets me email this to myself.  Right over here – on the top left.”

If you take that comment at face value, you’ll probably walk away with a note that says, “Add an ‘email to me’ button on the top left”.  Easy peasy.

But not so fast, the bloat-ware graveyard is filled with products that were developed with this superficial approach. Better to ask a few “whys”.

Me (playing the annoying toddler):  “That’s interesting; tell me why you need that button.”

Customer: “Because I need to have a copy of this for my records.”

Now you’re thinking, “Oh, this customer must be one of the stupid ones who didn’t see the ‘save to archive’ button that does exactly that.  What a dope.”

But wait, maybe we can ask “why” again.

Me: “Hmm.  Do you keep all your records in email?”

Customer: “Well it depends.  In this case, when I save it to archive, it’s a hassle because it’s in your proprietary report format and I can’t easily get at the data.”

Me: “Why do you need to get at the data?”

Customer:  “I need to create reports for my boss, and I need the data from a couple of places in your app.  When I use your archive feature, I can never find where it gets saved, and it uses your private format, which I can’t use easily.  So right now I copy and paste what I need into a spreadsheet and create the report from there.”

Ah.  Now we’re getting to the heart of things.

So what this customer REALLY wanted wasn’t an email.  He simply wanted to create a report that wasn’t currently produced by the application.  Hmm… now who’s the dope?

Once you understand the underlying roadblock that is motivating a specific feature request, you are empowered to solve the actual problem at hand.

So, the next time you find yourself listening to a customer want, go ahead and channel your inner toddler and ask “why” a few times.  Just remember, it’s still impolite to throw your peas.

01 Mar

3 Big Ideas For B2B Product People: Ali Rizvi

Ali Rizvi has a tough job. As the Head of Product at Fonality (recently acquired by NetFortris), a leading telephony company, he’s charged with continually developing world-class communications products for enterprise-level customers.

At the heart of his experience, Ali’s found that truly understanding his customers is the best way to consistently stay ahead of his competition. He had some amazing insights during our interview, including:

  1. The best time to get B2B customer feedback is when they’re happy.

    Let’s face it — with most B2B customers, their number one desire is, “just make it work”. Naturally, this means that we most often hear from our (angry) customers when our product doesn’t.

    Be careful, though. While this negative feedback is important and should be listened to, it’s usually about an issue you’re already aware of. What product managers and engineers should really seek is positive feedback. Positive feedback tends to be more constructive, and can yield the deep insights needed to continually develop a product into something incredible.

    Mining this elusive data from your customers can be tough, though. Our trick? We get our best positive feedback from customers when they’ve just finished a great experience with us. We have an exceptional customer onboarding process, during which we carve out a time for each customer to give feedback. Some of our best new recommendations have come from happy customers during this process.

  2. Use feedback consistency to find meaningful trends.

    When you manage a product (or a bunch), deciding when to act on a particular piece of customer feedback is a delicate balance. Respond to every customer demand and you’ll find yourself running in circles; respond to too few and you’ll start losing customers to your competitors.

    How do you pick out the meaningful feedback from the momentary? For me, consistency is the driving factor. If I hear a suggestion once or twice, it’s mildly interesting. If I hear ten, twenty times, however, I know we’ve hit on a real pain point and should build around it.

    Try to be open-minded and unbiased when listening for this feedback, too. For instance, I — and many industries — have been steadily moving their products to become browser-based, cloud applications. And for a variety of good reasons.

    But, lately I’ve been hearing the same thing from our customers: they really like desktop applications! Their reason is so simple that we overlooked it, actually: desktop applications can be broken apart and modularized (you can’t do that with browser-based applications). That allows people to have just the things they use on a daily basis, always there.

  3. Increase user “stickiness” by focusing on the problem, not the product.

    At the heart of any good B2B product, you’ll find it’s really not about the product at all. Instead, a well-designed solution focuses on the problem, and realizes that solving a real pain point — no matter the method — is the only thing that matters when it comes to getting user adoption.

    Finding a way to get a critical mass of adoption from the end users at your customer companies is crucial. Even if you’re able to sell a big contract to a large employer, you won’t make much progress in the long run if the actual employees aren’t satisfied with their experience. Great user experience should be so intuitive it becomes part of someone’s daily business practice, and eventually so ingrained that the customer can’t simply “unhook” and choose one of your lower-priced competitors.

Thanks, Ali! These types of insights are tough to find, and I have no doubt our B2B readers will build great things if they’re able to follow in your footsteps.

Okay, one last question for Ali: Hitchhiker’s Guide or Lord of the Rings? Ali knew his answer instantly: Lord of the Rings! In fact, he’s been a die-hard fan since he read the entire series over a summer at age nine.

Bonus fact: He can speak Elvish a heck of a lot better than I speak Klingon!   He taught me how to say hello (“Mae govannen”) and goodbye (“Namárie”).

Thanks for reading, see you next time.  I mean, Namárie!