Product Managers Must Feel The Pain

Customer pain points are a good way to start an investigation about new products or even a major feature of your new release. Granted, and to paraphrase Henry Ford, customers familiar with horses won’t think to ask you about a car, but it is a starting point.

The sales force is an invaluable source of information on this topic. As part of their sales cycle they will typically manage to articulate the customer’s pain points to the rest of the organization and they will propose solutions to these pain points around the products you and your team manage. Product Managers should use this information whenever possible.

However, Product Managers should not totally depend on the sales organization to understand the customer’s pain points. Instead, they should consider it an important part of their job to go out there (heard that one before?) and spend some time in the field. Direct discussions with the sales force can help but cannot replace direct interaction with a customer.

There are a multitude of reasons for this, and as part of this blog, I will limit myself to the top five.

  1. The information Sales provides is not packaged correctly for what you need to accomplish. You need detailed, objective information to build your new product. Most of the reports you read in a CRM system contain only a few lines about the pain, its impact and how the customer copes today. Interviews with the sales force may not always help either. Why? Because the data around the business pain must be consistent to be really useful.  In order to draw rigorous conclusions, you need to have a process for interacting with the customer in a systematic fashion. A consistent set of questions will create a systemic approach to generating more data points and to avoiding having your perspective clouded by one anecdote. It will also help you segment the categories of business pain in a more logical fashion.
  2. How about the customers and prospects your sales force is NOT meeting?  These constituents are very important. They may not know your solution exists, or they may have discounted it for a reason that you’d love to know. You need to go out there to find out.  Network at conferences; seek introductions thorough alumni and other social networks. That’s part of the value you bring to the table.
  3. The customer pain may evolve as you ask questions and sales may not have the time to capture subtle changes occurring as the customer becomes more sophisticated through a lengthy sales cycle. As you and your competitors educate the customer, their definition of the problem becomes more sharp. You and your company must sense that evolution in order to gain and keep the status of a “column A” vendor. Granted it is the account manager’s responsibility to manage the prospect’s expectations, but she may not know as much about the competitors as you do.
  4. How many actors experience the impact of the pain? It must be incurred and recognized as an issue by many. If only one actor feels the pain, will they be able to make it a problem that can truly be felt by the rest of the organization and start a sales cycle? Or is it a real but vastly ignored issue that may take a few years to surface as a top issue? If the pain point is well-known and pervasive, it will be a lot easier to sell a product that addresses it as opposed to one where you need to educate a prospect about a problem they didn’t know they had.
  5. What are the substitutes? Because your position as a Product Manager allows for an expanded understanding of your industry, you may be able to consider any substitute that your sales force does not. What if that pain is easily solved by some other product in a cheaper way? Does it warrant a new product then? Probably not.

Too many times Product Managers use sales force information as a main source for understanding business pains. In some situations, Product Managers are cut off from their customers for budgetary or political reasons. Sometimes they are just too busy for a trip. Don’t fall into the trap of becoming an order-taker. It may be easy, but it won’t yield homerun products. Take the time to get to the bottom of the issues and accurately define the problems your product or solution will solve. This will increase your chances of success and will help you gain credibility in the process.