16 Aug

How Tearful Interviews Lead to Happy Customers

Love moment between mother and patient child in a hospital bed “I was terrified. I thought she was going to die in front of me.”

Those were the words out of a research participant’s mouth as she described her experience during a medical crisis with her daughter. Then she burst into tears. As we passed the tissues, we had to grab a few for ourselves.

Rewind a bit.

We were doing a customer journey project for a large Health Care Provider to determine how to improve the customer experience on their website. We had been following the usual protocol for journey mapping: prompting users to tell us about a specific healthcare experience they’d had recently, and then asking them at each step what they did and what they were thinking. But after our first day, we were finding that the interviews were falling a little flat.

To be fair, not every health care journey is dramatic. Some people’s stories were about mundane conditions. “I had this weird thing on my hand, and my wife was bugging me to get it checked out, so I did. The doctor gave me cream, and it went away”, was one story.

But mixed in with the mundane experiences were people who had chronic conditions, or were caregivers for children, spouses, or parents with debilitating diseases, or people who had been diagnosed with cancer. And these conversations had been fairly flat as well.

We thought that if we could just dig a little deeper underneath people’s individual stories, we could produce something truly meaningful for not only our client, but the people sitting with us in the interview rooms.

That’s when we made a simple change to our interview protocol and started asking at each step “And how did you feel at this point?”

Not just “what were you thinking?” or “what information were you looking for?” or “what were you expecting next?”

Just a simple “How did you feel?”

That simple change did two things:

First, it made people open up. It removed some of the artificiality of sitting across the table from each other in a mirrored market research room, and encouraged them to start talking about things they might not have otherwise brought up.

Second, it gave us powerful stories to bring back to the client, which gave them tools to better empathize with the people they were serving. As healthcare providers, these stories helped them deeply understand that their customers were often seeing them during the worst days of their life. Speaking with the client over a year after the project finished, they still remembered, with crystal clarity, the story of the mother whose child almost died. “We talked about the stories throughout the course of the project,” one of our client contacts told me. “There was so much raw humanity to them.” they said.

As part of improving the health care experience, we wanted to know what it felt like to receive a cancer diagnosis after a long journey to many doctors across a spectrum of specialties. We wanted to understand what we could do, in any small way, to help make these Worst Days minutely less horrible, less terrifying, and less out-of-control.

We also realized that not all customer journeys are equal. We still wanted to understand what people’s journeys with strep throat and weird hand rashes looked like, because those were important too. Those journeys told us about the routine issues that we all experience whenever we come into contact with the medical establishment—the frustration of waiting endlessly at urgent care, the annoyance of finding someone who can see you at a time when you can take off from work, the importance of a doctor who listens.

When we completed our interviews at the end of the week, we had an incredibly rich number of stories to draw from—so many, in fact, that we were able to craft a digital strategy that went far beyond what the hospital website would do. We realized that in many ways, we were limiting ourselves by thinking about a website strategy, or even a digital strategy. By connecting with the emotional content of the conversations, we started to think about a customer strategy—one that would be medium-agnostic.

The role of emotion may seem obvious in health care journeys, but we’ve seen that emotion can play into customer journeys in unexpected places. On a recent project for a client who sells enterprise software, we interviewed a customer who had recently gone through a system upgrade experience which affected tens of thousands of users. It did not go well and he was shaken by the experience. “The pressure on our team was incredible. I am never doing that ever again,” he said. Even for this highly technical product, fear, frustration, anger, and trust were significant elements of the customer journey. This is a journey where a customer has ten thousand people angry at him if the product he bought does not perform well, and he could even be out of a job if it gets bad enough. So while the enterprise software industry doesn’t exactly scream “worst day of my life” in the same way that hospitals do, emotion can run high there as well. Careers are at stake.

We need to remember that no matter what they are doing, your customers are human beings, and human beings are driven by emotion.
So try this: Next time you are talking to your customers about their experience, remember to ask them: “How did you feel?”

Photo Credit: Stocksy | Miquel Llonch

A version of this article originally appeared on A List Apart

04 Aug

3 Big Ideas for B2B Product People: Manoj Govindan – Wells Fargo (now with Levvel)

Manoj Govindan

Many of us in the B2B world wrestle with one big issue: How do we sell to big enterprise companies? A few select people, though, have the opposite dilemma: We’re a big company … from whom should we buy our technology?

Manoj Govindan is one of those select few.

As an innovation executive at Wells Fargo, his job was to help the company diversify it’s annual IT spend (in the low billions of dollars each year) on new/emerging technology.

Manoj’s role at Wells Fargo was to score a hat trick of value creation:
– Identify the most promising fintech companies (industry lingo for technology-in-the-financial-sector) and start pilot projects within the bank to ensure Wells Fargo remained on the cutting edge.
– Leverage Wells Fargo’s expertise and resources to foster a thriving ecosystem of innovative technology.
– Generate value for Wells Fargo (plus investors and shareholders) by helping these startups when they are ready to scale to the next level.

If he can’t shed some light on the key to innovation in large, conservative, and slow moving enterprises, I don’t know who can.

In the midst of a cross country move and a professional transition from Wells Fargo to Levvel (a new startup), Manoj was kind enough to take some time to tell me about how to make this magic happen.

1. It’s in the bank’s best interest to take risks on new tech.

Big companies like Wells Fargo like to get their new technology solutions from one place: established vendors. On the surface, this makes sense. It’s safe, dependable, and doesn’t require vetting out a new company.

Taking only this path, though, has downsides. First off, it’s likely that these larger organizations will take longer to develop and package a new technology than upstart companies. Second, you’ll be paying bloated enterprise rates, rather than getting early bird pricing.

As a bank, there’s one more benefit: Once we help these companies grow and mature into full-scale operations, many of them look to have a liquidity event (either they’re acquired or they go public). In either case, we’re now positioned to do the banking for that transaction. So it opens some great new business for us.

2. Follow the investors to find new tech.

Taking on any new technology is bound to rock the boat at a big company. The water really starts sloshing if the tech company in question is a brand new one. There’s a way to mitigate that risk, though: investors.

When sourcing new tech, I work almost exclusively with the lead investors in the startups rather than the startups themselves. This has two awesome benefits. First, investors are great at vetting new companies — it’s their job after all. If they’ve already been comfortable enough to throw millions behind a company, that says a lot to me.

Second, I can follow trends in the investment market as a whole. If lots of different companies in a particular space are being heavily invested in, I take that as a signal of a technology that’s soon to be commonplace and deserves our attention.

3. Build the right customer advisory board.

When we work with startup companies, we’re not just buying their services — we’re helping them scale and build the right products. Oftentimes, that involves putting together a customer advisory board.

Customer advisory boards are great, but not all members are created equal. If you’re building one for your company, be careful about who’s on it.
Rather than grabbing the highest title person you can at a company, aim for someone that actually will work with or buy your technology — a user, not a chooser. Then, make sure that individual will able to give consistent, constructive feedback that can really help you pinpoint what that customer needs to grow.

Thanks, Manoj! It’s fantastic to talk to someone on the buying, rather than building, side of things.

I asked Manoj one final question: “What keeps you up at night?”

“I worry sometimes that by following the money, I might be putting too much weight on the wrong signal. While investors can be a powerful indicator of a company’s potential, relying on that too much has its own pitfalls.

Knowing what to pay attention to is critical. If I’m not paying attention to the right signals, I risk missing the next big game changer.”

29 Jun

3 Big Ideas For B2B Product People: Mark Amszej – CDK Global

Mark AmszejIf you haven’t heard of CDK Global, don’t worry — it’s not exactly a household name. But if you’ve ever bought a car from a dealership, chances are good that you’ve been touched by their software without even knowing it.

From marketing, to insurance quotes, to pricing, to integrating with every car manufacturer you can think of it, CDK’s suite of car dealership workflow software pretty much does it all.

Managing such a vast suite of functionality for such a diverse group of end users isn’t easy – selecting and communicating your priorities is crucial. Here’s how Mark says he makes it all work.

1. The best place to understand your user is on-site.

Focus groups and big data gathering are all well and good for learning about your customers. But nothing beats seeing them in their own environment. At CDK, visiting the dealerships that use our software is a not-so-secret weapon that we try to put to use as much as possible.

Is it more time consuming and expensive to travel to individual dealerships instead of just running a survey? You bet. But so many things aren’t captured in a survey: The frustration of a sales rep dealing with a bug that hasn’t been patched yet; or the way your software is actually used in the heat of a crowded Saturday afternoon.

If you’re trying to get deep insights about your user so you can design a better product, do yourself a favor: Whenever possible, go to the source and go to where your product is being used heavily.

2. Know your strategy and what “mode” of business you’re in.

Before you develop a strategy, it’s important to know what “mode” your product is in.

Not all products are at the same stage in their lifecycle, and the difference matters. Are you in “growth mode,” just looking for more customers? Are you in “harvest mode,” an established player doing everything you can to maximize profits? If you’re in “land grab mode,” trying to expand, are you doing it by making more products or acquiring existing ones?

Each product in your portfolio needs to have a well-thought out strategy, and everyone working on that product should be well versed in how that strategy affects what they do on the day-to-day.

3. Communicate your strategy internally.

Once you’ve developed a strategy, it doesn’t do you any good if it’s not well communicated. Nowadays, there are hundreds of different ways to “socialize” information, whether that means putting it on a SharePoint site or sending it in an email memo or hosting numerous webinars.

I’ve noticed though, that no matter how interconnected our communication tech gets, the people seem to stay the same. In other words, they’re not likely to adopt an idea just because you posted it somewhere.

The solution? Good old fashioned elbow grease and conversation. Yep — infusing your strategy within your team’s core takes time and often one-on-one communication. If you have an important message to deliver (hint: your product strategy probably falls in this category), take the time to speak about it — and I mean really hammer it home — in person, with your team.

Great tips, Mark! I love how his interview shows that, no matter the industry, the same principles apply: Listening and talking face-to-face is almost always the first step to a better product.

That’s all for today. See you next time, and hopefully your next car purchase will be ever smoother, thanks to Mark and his colleagues!

20 Jun

Weed Your Customer Garden

DandylionA few weeks ago, my neighbor Sophie cornered me while I was taking out the garbage.

“Dandelions are pretty bad this year, huh?” she said, nodding pointedly at the yellow heads littering my front lawn.

“Umm… yeah… really bad,” I stammered back.

This is the part where I explain that Sophie’s lawn looks like a lush green carpet. You know, the kind you see pictured on a big box of grass seed at the hardware store.

Our lawn, in embarrassingly striking contrast, has more, how shall I put this, “biodiversity”.

After a few years living in suburbia, I have come to learn that your merits as a human being are highly correlated with the quality of your lawn. Personally, my view is that dandelions are kind of pretty and lawns are a silly way to communicate your status to the world. So I haven’t really paid much attention to ours.

Plus, having a health crop of dandelions allows me to indulge in the fantasy that I will one day make healthy dandelion green salads and dandelion wine.

Until that happy day arrives, however, and not wanting the neighbors coming after me with pitchforks and torches, I decided to suck it up this year and put in the yard work required.

You’ll be happy to learn that in the midst of my weeding, watering, top-seeding, and compost-spreading, I had many hours (many, many hours) with which to reflect on the similarities between lawn care and customer experience.

When you take care, people notice

While out there with my weed-puller, I had many neighbors pass by and strike up a sympathetic conversation about the perils of weed management. As they saw me there, day after day in the early morning and evening, they would comment on my progress and cheer me on. “You’re winning the battle!” They would enthuse. (I wasn’t.)

The same is true when you take care of your customers: People notice. You become known as an organization that listens and pays attention.

If you don’t deal with the root problem, it will only get worse

In previous years, I never bothered to pull up the weeds by their roots. I just mowed them down (pathetic, I know) or sent my kids out to snap the flower heads off the dandelions. The results were predictable. Not only did the problem not go away, the weeds multiplied and spread. Soon my entire lawn was overtaken.

The same holds true with customer dissatisfaction. If you only address the symptoms after they occur, you may pretty things up for a day or two. But these types of band-aid fixes don’t address the root cause. Soon – very soon – the problem will grow and spread.

To have a nice lawn, you need to create the base conditions for excellence

Pulling up weeds is all very nice, but if you’re looking for lasting impact, you’ll also need certain fundamentals in place. That means nurturing and taking care of your soil – by aerating, fertilizing, watering and applying compost.

With customer experience, it’s likewise fine to do nice things like running conferences or offering promotions and giveaways. But here too, if you don’t take care of the fundamentals – gathering and acting upon customer feedback – you’ll forever be putting out fires, spinning your wheels and making little progress.

Consistency matters

In the land of top-seeding, the mantra (so I’m told) is “If they dry, they die”. That means you need to keep the lawn moist, every day, for 14-28 days. This requires consistent dedication. Even a single missed day in the hot sun can lead to dried out seeds, forcing you to start over.

Your customers are no different. Those big events – customer appreciation conferences, user group panels, etc. – are vital. But unless you keep those relationships wet, I mean nurtured, you’ll find yourself forced to start over too.

Keep these simple but powerful, customer experience concepts in mind as you plan your time, staffing and budgets. As with lawn care, there’s a lot going on out of sight and beneath the surface. A little extra attention now will save you effort, money and the disapproving eye of neighbors in the future!

Photo Credit: Flickr: https://flic.kr/p/ahCuht

05 Jun

3 Big Ideas For B2B Product People: Jeff Stanier – Adobe Systems

Jeff StanierMeet the one and only Jeff Stanier. In case you aren’t lucky enough to have crossed paths with him, Jeff is Director of Product Management over two Adobe Systems products: Adobe Experience Manager Forms and Adobe Connect.

With a job that hinges on understanding his customers at a deep level, Jeff — and Adobe’s — success relies on customer insights. But not all customer feedback is created equal. Read on for Jeff’s thoughts

  1. Don’t listen to every customer.

If you work in B2B — or any industry, for that matter — you know that listening to your customers is the only way to create a product that truly delights and meets their needs. But, there’s a trap many fall into when they start a Voice of Customer program.

Customers have a tendency to voice what’s on their mind that very moment. And while it’s true that many times this feedback can represent your customer base as a whole, it might also simply reflect a singular need or desire that isn’t shared by most. If you rush headlong down every one of these rabbit holes, you’ll quickly find yourself resource-strapped and without direction.

Luckily, there’s an answer — focus on the data points, or customer stories, that you see pop up again and again. At Adobe, one of the ways we find best to identify this big-picture, directional feedback, is to host a “Customer Advisory Board” several times each year. At these laid-back conferences, customers talk and we listen — all the while keeping track of overall themes that help us prioritize our roadmap.

       2. Focus on listening, not selling.

At our Customer Advisory Board sessions, we invite about ten senior-level managers who use our products. As they talk about their experiences and sometimes, struggles,

I’m always tempted to put on my sales hat and explain how great our products are.

After all, we put countless hours of hard work into developing them.

But, I’ve found that the most meaningful insights come from biting my tongue and simply listening. Instead of jumping in to show a customer how they could use our product better, we observe their current struggle and think about what we could change that would have eliminated the roadblock in the first place.

The customer stories we hear at these sessions are invaluable — we record the most representative ones, share them with our team, and use this feedback to influence the direction of our development. Designing for a user gets easier when you can picture the real person you’re helping on the other end.

       3. Think about how you can create radical changes for your customers.

At Adobe, I oversee the product development of Adobe Experience Forms, a digital documents and forms platform. If you’ve ever filled out a form online (and I’m willing to bet you have!) it’s very possible you’ve used our software.

At first glance, handling forms for a business doesn’t seem like something that could be radically improved. After all, it can be boring stuff. But after spending time exploring the needs of our customers, we were able to help in some pretty transformative ways. From using machine learning to digitize paper forms in ever more efficient ways, to rationalizing redundancies in their forms (in some cases reducing forms needed by 80%!), we’ve discovered opportunities for incredible upgrades in our customers’ daily experience.

If you listen deeply to your customers, and are able to sort out the underlying themes from the clutter, you can do the same for your business and products.


Impressive stuff, Jeff! As a final question I asked, “What keeps you up at night?”

I loved his answer: “I’m always thinking about how the way we interact with systems is changing. With products like Alexa or Google Home, the Internet of Things will change our lives. Who knows — it may even affect how we fill out forms!”

19 May

Lessons From The Motherland


My parents shortly before escaping communist Czechoslovakia

My parents had three children under the age of four when they escaped communist Czechoslovakia over 40 years ago.  They somehow managed to get a three-day visa to “visit” Austria, so they packed what would be considered reasonable for a three-day trip and never came back.

Needless to say, it’s been a long three days.

Many of their siblings also escaped to various countries: Austria, Germany, Canada. Others never left.

And so last week, we journeyed back in the other direction.  My entire extended family gathered for a reunion, bringing together the Canadian, German, Austrian, and Czech branches of the family for the first time ever.

I had grown up with stories of what it was like to be a refugee, navigating a  bewildering new language and culture.  I knew how hard my parents had to work in order to provide an education for their kids so that we could have a brighter future.

But last week was my first time hearing stories of what it was like to stay.  Because while my parents escaped to a better life, their siblings felt obligated to remain and take care of aging parents.  “Well, SOMEONE had to stay”, they said.

Not only that, the communist regime made them pay a price for having relatives who fled.  Those left behind were only allowed to have menial jobs and their kids were refused a higher education … which meant the next generation was left with these same jobs too.

Frankly, I had never given much thought to the experience of my relatives in the mother country.  I had only ever heard one narrative.  One set of experiences.  

But hearing these stories for the first time last week gave me an understanding of how the actions of one person affected others in our interdependent web of relationships and lives.

Guess what … it’s often the same where enterprise software is concerned. Here too, we tend to listen to only one set of experiences. Usually, it’s the experiences of whomever is signing the checks.

Many points of view
Enterprise software usually has multiple sets of users.

For example, with an expense reporting system, there might be…

… a CFO and department heads who want better visibility into how their company is spending money.

… an IT manager who can greenlight the technical feasibility of a project.

… the people who actually use the system, day in and day out.

But guess whose voice is most often heard?  If you said the CFO and department heads (who write the checks) and the IT manager (who needs to make it all work), you are correct!

Left behind are those who do the actual work. Nobody listens to their stories, leaving them to make the best of systems and technology that were designed and/or approved by people far away from the day-to-day, hands-on operation.

At the risk of hyperbole, we might think of them as your company’s “forgotten cousins,” left behind and standing in breadlines.

With that in mind, here is your homework for next week:

Have a conversation with someone who actually uses what you make.  If you build technology that is used by nurses, talk to nurses, not just the hospital administrators.

Watch how they use the technology. Is it smooth and intuitive or have they developed workarounds?  Does it make their lives easier, or do they simply put up with what’s been given to them? Ask a lot of “Why questions” [link to previous article]. Listen. Hear their story.

Along the way, be gently resolute with the decision makers – the ones you already talk to – and insist on meeting with their team members who are being asked to use your system.

Will you encounter resistance when you try to do this? Most definitely. But persist. I guarantee that you will end up with a better product.  Which, after all, was the reason you began your journey in the first place.


07 May

3 Big Ideas for B2B Product People: Mairi Miller from Nanometrics

MairiMillerAs Head of Corporate Marketing at Nanometrics, Mairi’s done some pretty interesting stuff when it comes to understanding her customers.  Beginning with the creation of a “Customer Experience Taskforce,” she found ways to gather deep insights about the difficulties her customers — mostly scientists measuring shifts in the earth — face daily. From there, she focused on how Nanometrics could improve their experience.

Here’s what she had to say:

  1. Even smart customers appreciate user friendly products
    We first formed the Customer Experience Taskforce because we felt distanced from our customers — we were designing products for people that we hardly knew. We decided to do a bunch of in-person interviews to get to know them better, and the results were astounding.

    One interview stands out in particular: We talked to a group of scientists that had just returned from the South Pole. These folks had had a less-than-stellar experience with our equipment, but not for the reason we expected!

    The equipment itself worked perfectly. The pain point was in actually deploying the equipment and setting it up. We’d assumed that these scientists, as smart as they were, would have the same technical know-how that a group of engineers would. Not so — they were experts in reading the data, not in how our tools worked.

    From these interviews, we realized there was a large gap in our offering when it came to giving scientists a user-friendly experience. We also uncovered a brand new opportunity for expanding our business by offering installation services and engineering expertise.

  2. To influence change, focus on the preexisting pain points within your own company.

    As a marketer, it became obvious to me that we could learn a lot from an in-depth, intentional study of our customer base. But part of the struggle was convincing everyone else internally — engineers and C-suite alike — that the project would be worthwhile.

    Eventually, we found that we could make our case for forming the Customer Experience Taskforce most effectively by framing it in terms of a pain point the company was already experiencing. We decided to focus on a somewhat recently released product that was underperforming, and aimed our pitch to our executive staff around getting customer feedback in order to improve sales.

    The response was fantastic. Instead of a resource-sucking side project, the taskforce was now directly in line with an existing company initiative.

  3. Data is only meaningful when aggregated; and presentation style matters.

    When you interview people, especially scientists, you end up gathering a ton of feedback. I mean, a ton. And it’s messy, too — not all of it will fit nicely into buckets, and aggregating it into something useful can be tricky.

    As we began collecting data, we started to get very excited about what we were finding. But, we had to wait to share it with the team — we knew that sharing the raw data would be overwhelming and potentially misleading to others that weren’t looking at all the findings at once.

    Despite the eagerness of others in the company, we decided to keep our findings confidential until we could present them all at once. I’m glad we did. We were able to curate the most powerful stories and the most impactful feedback, and deliver it all in one cohesive presentation that contributed to repositioning our company from a product manufacturer to one that offers services, too.


Powerful stuff! (And we’re talking about earthquakes here, so the bar is high!) I had one more question for Mairi, of course: “Dr. Strange or Dr. Who?”

I loved Mairi’s answer: “I never saw Dr. Strange, but Dr. Who creeped me out as a kid! Now, Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, those are my favorites!”

Fair enough! See you next month.


10 Apr

3 Big Ideas For B2B Product People: Daniel Eicke


As Product Owner of Brand Solutions at Zalando, Daniel Eicke is responsible for building services and products for the company’s “fashion partners” – suppliers, retailers, fashion brands and others, all of whom are involved in the sale of fashion-related items.

This is separate and apart from the company’s primary focus as an international online retailer. Zalando has built a “fashion platform” and Daniel’s role is the development of products and services for a broad range of businesses across any number of functions, including delivery, payment, branding, promotion, etc.

As you might guess, he knows a lot about what it takes to build a robust platform that meets customers needs.  Here is what he told me…

  1. Create a collaborative environment

    We’ve been working with 2,000 – 3,000 brands for many years. But it was on a simple, contractual level … we didn’t have such a close relationship. As a retailer, brands worked to convince us to sell their stuff in our shop. We wanted to change the kind of relationship we had with them, and instead, focus on creating a win-win situation with our partners.

    So three years ago, we developed a new initiative with a simple slogan: “Help brands win online.” We invited 100 of our most important partners for a “strategic partner day.” The goal was to spread the message about our fashion platform and sketch some ideas in an environment where we all worked together.

    Yes, we were concerned, initially, about bringing competitors together to work on shared problems. We didn’t know what would happen. But thanks to emphasizing the problems, and making sure we were working towards mutual solutions, the participants were able to put aside the competitive elements and give us the insights we needed to develop the necessary platform and toolsThey saw it the same way we did, as part of an effort to elevate the industry as a whole.

  2. Develop solutions for a wide range of audiences.

    When we set up that first strategic partner day, we reached out to a handful of brands with the goal of connecting with them closely. We were looking for the early adopters – the people who were eager to participate and move forward.

    But we were also careful to get a mix of partners based on several criteria: small/big, consumer/commercially driven, etc. We set up intensive brainstorming sessions which gave us lots of insights regarding their plans with Zalando, as well as what they were trying to achieve more broadly. Overall, we wanted to make sure that whatever we developed was applicable to many audiences and situations.

    We also learned that it’s important to keep things fresh.  At some point (we have done this for three years now), the energy can begin to fade away with a particular group.  It took us a while to understand that with each new focus or discipline that we were building, we should bring fresh brand partners into the mix.

  3. Decouple research from the sales team.

    As a product owner, of course my team collaborates with sales. But product management is connected to technology. If you are too tied to the sales function your inputs will be sales driven.  For example, we don’t want to select a test partner based on who is the biggest – or shouting the loudest – just to satisfy a sales need.  We wanted all kinds of partners and circumstances.  Otherwise, you are in danger of building features that are only of value to your top customers.

    We have our own research team and base of contact for our partners. This allows us to ask the right questions and stay focused on the problems that need solving.


Thanks so much, Daniel.  I found the idea of bringing competitors together to work on shared problems to be particularly insightful!

Speaking of competitors (see what I did there?), what’s your preference, Captain Kirk or Captain Picard?

“Picard, of course. Captain Kirk is so 60s! Also the old Star Trek stories were less complex.  Next Generation had much deeper plots with social topics behind them.”

Bonus: Get a look behind the scenes of Zalando’s Techblock.


14 Mar

Channel your inner toddler


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!