Do you know what your customers really want?

October 1, 2008 OpenSystems Media

1Editor's note: I've spent most of my 25-plus years in the industry on the marketing side of the equation. Marketing is perhaps the most misunderstood function in high-tech companies, many of which employ product managers and salespeople but not well-trained marketing professionals. A marketing team's primary role is to understand problems in the market and work with the engineering team to solve those problems in ways that will drive successful product or service revenue.

Tuning in to business opportunities

To compete in today's global economy, it is vitally important to understand as much as possible about the markets you and your customers support. This means that you must research more than just your current customers' needs. You need to get out and study the market as a whole, considering the problems from a big-picture perspective.

Finding unresolved problems in the market is a real art, and if done properly, can translate into products that sell successfully. Though learning about marketing problems can be difficult, if you know where to look, what questions to ask, how to observe and listen to responses, and analyze what you have learned, it becomes much easier. The real challenge is distinguishing problems from feature requests, complaints, comments, and other irrelevant feedback.

Customers can provide all kinds of input that must be filtered to glean the ideas that will lead to successful products. In their recently released book entitled Tuned In, authors Craig Stull, Phil Myers, and David Meerman Scott describe a process for creating what they refer to as a resonator, a product or service that practically sells itself by solving specific problems for buyers.

To determine what resonates in your market, look for unresolved problems that are both urgent and pervasive. Urgency implies that companies are motivated to find and pay for solutions; pervasiveness indicates that several different companies are willing to pay for those solutions. Identifying these types of problems requires getting out and doing interviews, making observations, conducting surveys, and essentially immersing yourself in the market.

Sources of market feedback

Finding people to talk to is relatively easy; finding the right people is more challenging. See Table 1 for a list of potential input sources.

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Table 1

It is important to gather information from several sources. Don't fall into the trap of basing your strategy on the last customer your senior executives visited. Multiple sources give you a multifaceted view of market problems. Jim Holland, VP of services at Ryma Technology Solutions, recommends trying to "align your resources to identify and capture the most ideas from the broadest audience".

To reach a broader audience, you need to get into the market, attend trade shows, and study the supply chain from the design team all the way to end users. Visit your customer's training classes and take students to lunch. Use your executive contacts to set up discovery meetings.

"Our customers are not shy about what their problems are", says Jim Tang, MathWorks Fellow at The MathWorks. "We conduct many one-on-one sessions to learn more. We also sponsor industry segment advisory boards in several industries, including automotive, aerospace and defense, high-performance computing, and many others".

Keep in mind that most sources have an agenda that might hinder or conflict with their ability to help you generate an innovative idea. Examples include instances when your sales team wants to close a deal or when an existing customer tries to influence your strategic direction, neither of which would necessarily further your goal of identifying market problems.

Marketing teams can gain many benefits from customer discovery trips. Once customers see that they were involved in the development process, they will become more interested in your next generation of products. Making visits also strengthens your relationship with customers, enabling you to establish regular communication with key contacts.

Existing customers

Because you already have a solid relationship with your existing customer base, you'll want to be careful when approaching this group for feedback. Existing customers are usually willing to provide input on enhancements they would like to see, but these comments don't often help you come up with winning products. These customers typically try to keep you on the same track because they don't want huge leaps in technology except at major product line forks, which is why their responses are more useful when validating product enhancements and new features.

When questioning this group about market problems, focus on architects who are working on next-generation concepts. They are more motivated to discuss issues in a way that can help you develop breakthrough solutions. Meet with the Chief Technology Officer and establish a rapport so that you can go back for more information as needed. Concept teams can be your strongest potential customers.

Evaluators

Opinions on how to handle feedback from evaluators are mixed. Evaluators might not be attached to specific product features and thus are more likely to share ideas for improvements. However, asking them questions might inadvertently steer them in a different direction and disrupt the sales cycle. It's best if they have some experience with the product so they can zero in on the bigger challenges that need to be addressed. When interviewing this group, listen to their input but be careful not to delay the buying process. If you wind up losing the deal, consider them potential customers and complete a full win/loss evaluation.

Potential customers

Potential customers are the best source for data gathering. Determine why their products aren't solving their problems and find out if there is anything preventing them from embracing your solutions. Understanding their market problems can help you close the gap and make the sale. Check out leads that are not getting responses, look at win/loss reports, and go back for more information if necessary. Finding potential customers is challenging but can reap significant rewards.

Techniques for pinpointing problems

Unless you're Apple, don't try telling the market what it wants. Stop using SWAGs, gut instincts, and epiphanies to guide your decisions. Input from executive management and product development teams will influence your direction, and if you complete the appropriate research, you will have plenty of evidence to help you make the right choices.

Marketing professionals use several techniques for discerning market problems, including surveys, focus groups, and interviews, all of which should be part of a complete discovery process.

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Sidebar 1

Surveys

One of the most common methods for gathering market data, surveys let you quickly target specific audiences and force you to organize your questions. However, surveys provide limited insight into respondents' answers because you can't read their body language or ask follow-up questions. Use them instead to supplement interviews.

Interviews

The best technique is a one-on-one interview, preferably conducted by professionals who are skilled at asking the right questions. Having a technology expert involved can be useful in understanding the responses.

Do your homework before embarking on a discovery trip. Prepare your questions in a structured format and then fill in the responses, adding your own notes and comments. This keeps the questions organized and the interview on track. You don't have to follow a step-by-step outline; in fact, free-flowing, conversational interviews often make interviewees feel more comfortable talking about their problems. Don't treat the meeting like an interrogation. Ask open-ended and probing questions and listen carefully to their responses. Request to visit the lab or see a demo, which can often shed more light on business problems than interviews alone.

Capturing responses in notes and recordings is critical for gaining useful information, as is filing visit reports immediately after the interview. Highlight the problems you observed so they don't get buried in the details and discuss the visit with a colleague to evaluate the information you just obtained.

The most successful marketing teams store this information in some type of database. Not surprisingly, very few companies do this. More often than not, data is kept in various notebooks scattered throughout the executive, sales, marketing, and engineering departments. It is impossible to pull it together, and most of it doesn't make much sense within hours after the meeting. A questionnaire can help you organize your queries and transfer data to an electronic form that can be shared and analyzed. Additional feedback can be uploaded to the database as it is gathered over time.

For example, The MathWorks maintains a database of input collected from the sales team, customer service personnel, engineers using the products, and consultants, Tang says. Trip reports are also entered into the database.

At many companies, the sales team likes to use the marketing team to open doors, literally and figuratively. If the sales team tags along for a customer visit, conduct the interview in an environment that does not feel like a sales call. Make sure that the salespeople don't influence the direction of the questioning and ask them to refrain from volunteering their own comments during the interview.

Tools that help manage discovery data

Some tools can help the marketing team gather data to discover and define market problems. These tools offer a variety of features, including product planning, requirements management, and product management, as shown in Table 2. Storing this information in an enterprise accessible database helps you keep track of customer input and allows others to use and build upon it. Don't lock up your market data in notebooks.

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Table 2

Up and at 'em

Get out of your office! You can do some homework online, but you won't be able to identify all the problems in your market by sitting at your desk. Send professional marketers to face-to-face sessions for in-depth discovery. Probe and listen to the comments your customers make. And stay on the lookout for urgent, pervasive market problems that will ensure your products' success.

Marketing resources

"Understanding Market Needs Through Customer Visits", by Gopal Shenoy, The Pragmatic Marketer, Vol. 4, Issue 5, 2006.

Tuned In www.tunedinblog.com

"Market Sensing - Anticipating Market Problems", Product Management View webinar, presented by Jim Holland, Ryma Technology Solutions.

Product Management Software Comparison, 280 Group

Jerry Gipper (Editorial Director)
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