Monday, April 23, 2012

Product Management: solve the right problem

Everyone works hard.  We put in many hours to handle all the requests that land on our plate.  We all try. But sometimes our efforts do not pay off.  When I look at my own failures, I see lot of times where I did not solve the right problem.

This happens often when I speak to customer.  There are largely two cases.  First case is where I understand what customer wants.  This is most often when I get to speak to customer one-on-one or in-person.  It allows the maximum flexibility to talk about candidly what the product does well or does not do well without getting wrapped around politics of who might be listening.  When you are talking to customers in person, you can compensate for this political correctness by reading body language and other non-verbal cues.

But this is more exception than norm.  Most customer calls happen over the phone, even worse it happens over several-timezone away with many other participants.  That's the second case.

Not the right way to sell your solution;
first make sure you understand the problem
Second case is where I think I understand what customer wants, yet in reality I am off the mark.  This happens often when I get second hand information about what customer is looking for, or get to listen to their description about what their proposed solution would look like.

Without having a chance to probe into why customer is looking for such a solution, I often fall into a trap of misunderstanding why they want such a solution.  In such cases usually it turns out that I either missed a critical pieces of proposed solution or entirely missed the point of why customer wants to solve the problem in first place.  Not knowing the root cause, likelihood of solving the wrong problem is far higher.

The problem gets aggravated when there are multiple participants on the customer call.  It's easy to lose track of who owns which pieces, and who will ultimately be responsible for putting a plan together to get back to customer.  Especially when product manager is brought on as a subject matter expert to help customer solve a problem for quarter-end deal that needs to get closed in a few days.

Fellow product managers, don't ever trick yourself thinking that you understand customer problem on your first phone call.  Ask for their number and get back to them with your assumptions.  

If you are invited on the call to solve a problem, most customers will be happy to take a call from you and will appreciate your gesture to understand their problem.  In the process you might learn valuable insights as to why current problem is causing pain for customers and other environment related issues that you might not have discovered.

So do yourselves a favor.  Call customer and talk to them to make sure that you are solving the right problem.

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