When Talking to Customers Isn't Enough

A few weeks ago, I was talking to the head of a small company about next steps. His company had a product with many happy, paying customers, and he wanted to know what to do next to make his current customers happier and attract some new ones.

The company had already made a good start. They had done surveys of current users asking the standard questions like, "How disappointed would you be if you could no longer use this product." They'd even surveyed current users about what new features they would like to see. The problem was, the happy customers couldn't think of anything else they wanted, and while the slightly less happy customers wanted some new features, there was no general consensus on one big, missing piece or fantastic new idea. So, the CEO wanted to know what to do next.

I believe this can be a problem with the "go out and talk to your customers" solution to product development. We can get so focused on talking to customers that we forget that it's not always the best way to figure out what to do next.

Observe Your Customers

Customers lie. They don't always mean to lie, but it often ends up that way. It's especially problematic when you ask people to explain how they currently use your product. Sometimes they forget parts of their process, or they don't even realize that they're doing certain things because it's all become so routine. Also, they tend to explain their process of using your product from start to finish, as if they weren't doing seven other things while trying to use your product. This can give you a totally skewed vision of what people are actually doing with your product.

What's the solution? Go out and watch them. Sit with them in their offices or homes and observe their real behavior. Most importantly, watch what they do immediately before and after they use your product.

I was talking with somebody who used to work for a marketplace that allows people to buy and sell products directly to each other. While observing users, her team noticed that, while people had very little trouble using the marketplace itself, the sellers spent a huge amount of time arranging shipping of the items. In fact, the shipping process took so much time that it limited the number of items they could list. By integrating with a shipping company to help customers print labels and schedule pickups, the company increased the number of items that could be listed which increased revenue.

Why didn't users ask for that? Well, the customers had a particular way of doing things. They thought of the marketplace as a place where they could buy and sell things, not as a product that helped them mail things. They had another solution that helped them mail things, and they didn't know that there was a better way to do that until they were presented with it.

Another critical thing you can learn by watching people is the environment in which your product is being used.  In one study I conducted, I was watching people process payroll. When asked how they processed payroll, customers could easily explain all the steps they went through. However, when I sat down beside them and watched, I realized that it wasn't nearly that simple. Not a single person got through the process uninterrupted. Phones rang. Coworkers stopped by to ask questions. Information was missing and had to be hunted down. Bosses needed tasks performed immediately. What they had described as a quick, linear process actually happened in fits and starts and could take place over a day or two.

Were they lying when they described their experiences? Not intentionally. They weren't asked to describe everything that could possibly happen while processing payroll, and they probably couldn't have answered that question if I'd asked it, since the interruptions varied wildly depending on the day and the office. In the end, the observations helped make the product more tolerant of this working style by allowing people to save state, skip areas where they didn't have the right information, and easily track what had already been done and what was still pending.

Connect With People Who Were Almost Your Customers

Don't forget, there's another really important group of people out there: people who were almost your customers. For every one person who signs up for your service or converts to a paying customer, there are lots of people who took a look or maybe used a free trial and then decided not to pull the trigger. A great way to build your customer base is to figure out why they made that decision.

The company I mentioned at the beginning of the post had a perfect audience for this. They offered a one month free trial, which meant that they had information about people who used the product, saw exactly what they had to offer, and then chose not to become customers. Maybe they didn't convert because the product was lacking a key feature. Maybe they didn't understand how to use it. Maybe it didn't do what they expected it to from reading the description on the website. These are all totally fixable problems, but you can't fix them until you know what they are.

Let me just head off the inevitable criticism of this approach right now. I am not advocating that you listen to every single thing that your almost-customers ask for and start building those features immediately. That would be insane. What I am suggesting is that you listen to the reasons that they give for not using your product and then analyze the data for patterns. Are lots of people saying that the product didn't do what they expected? Maybe the problem is that your marketing materials are deceptive. Are they complaining that it didn't do what they wanted? Find out what they wanted to do and what they're currently using to do it. How you incorporate their feedback is up to you, but you can't respond to feedback unless you're asking for it.

Of course, non-customers can be a little harder to connect with than customers, and they do tend to be less likely than customers to allow you to come hang around their offices all day and watch them work. Starting with a survey or an email asking to interview them on the phone can get you lots of good information about what is keeping them from becoming customers. Once you've built a rapport, some of them might even let you come watch them use the product.

Take Another Look at Customer Data

Not all companies have the ability to collect extensive customer data, but if you do, you may not be taking full advantage of it. For example, companies often fail to figure out the difference between the sorts of people who do become customers and those who don't.

Is your product only being purchased by companies with fewer than five employees? If so, that may be a signal to increase your marketing efforts to small companies while decreasing your spend on advertising to larger ones. Are your customers disproportionately mothers or college students or left handed circus performers? If so, start connecting with people who fit that profile to see what they think of your product and whether it solves a particular need for them that you might not have known anything about.

Or, the difference could be based on behavior rather than demographics. For example, if you have a freemium model or a free trial period, you should be looking at the behavior leading up to a user converting to paid or abandoning the product.

One client I worked with created a huge model showing all the different behaviors of users to try to understand which behaviors were most likely to lead to higher revenue and retention. Once we knew that users who explored a particular part of the product in the first five minutes were most likely to pay us, we could start experimenting with what would happen if we emphasized that part of the product early. Once we found that people who went down a different path abandoned the product, we could study that particular flow and find out if we were unintentionally confusing people or driving them away.

So Should I Still Talk To Customers?

Of course you should! Staying in constant contact with customers is vital to understanding your market and keeping people happy. It's just not always enough. If you feel like talking to customers has left you at a dead end or you want to get a perspective from somebody who isn't already a customer, give some of these alternate methods a try. You might be surprised at what you learn.

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You should also check out some of my other posts on user research and customer development: