I recently heard about a product manager at a large, international bank. He's an owner of a financial product like a cash loan or something. He sits in the bank headquarters together with hundreds of other administrative staff. And guess what - he's never been in the bank branch office. He's never spoke with their customer face to face. It's unbelievable and normal at the same time.
On one hand it's a usual situation. We've all worked in companies and positions where we never deal with the end customer. We often never see the end product of our work. We know nothing about the people we provide our services or products to. Especially in large organisations.
On the other hand it's hard to believe this is even possible. How can you build something of value to people you never seen? Especially in product and service development roles.
Every book about product development starts from getting out of the building and talking to customers. Even more, every marketing and sales training and conference repeats the mantra:
Know your customers.
They say you you can't build a successful product, you can't sell unless you know your customers better than they know themselves. You need to understand not only their demographics but also their needs and desires, ambitions and fears. All of it.
You can't learn it from market research, stats or focus groups. It needs to be qualitative. You need to meet them face to face. You need to work with them side-by-side. Listen to them, observe them in their natural environment. See them when they struggle with their problems. Immerse yourself in their world.
The Best vs. The Rest
The best companies out there know this. They put tons of effort into knowing the end user, the client. The knowledge of their customer comes first. It guides their strategies and tactics. Informs product development, marketing and sales. At the same time those are the most successful businesses out there. Starting from Intuit to Slack.
At the same time hitting the street to learn from first hand experience is difficult. It's stepping out of the comfort zone of our office. That's why some people try to outsource even the qualitative part. There's this guy Martin Lindstrom who even moves in with families around the globe to observe their life. He makes a living doing research for the big brands that are too scared, too busy to be interested in their clients.
One thing is sure. The deep knowledge of customers' problems is what separates the great businesses from mediocre ones. The ones that seem to defy the market realities, achieve biggest customer loyalty and best ratings. They just play a different game.
This is my plan starting 2nd quarter of 2017: get to know our customers well.