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Monday, March 7, 2016

5 Smart and Creative Questions You Should Be Asking Your Customers

As product managers, we're expected to interact with customers but, in my experience, typically receive little formal training on how to do it right. While some folks are naturals at this type of communication and often it's not difficult to find topics to discuss, I have the impression that I could have or should have gotten more out of customer interactions during my career. On balance, I have to admit that much of what I discussed with customers was fairly tactical, e.g., specific issues they were facing, input on investments for the next release.

I did a quick thought exercise, trying to uncover more open, creative and even perhaps strategic questions that I either stumbled upon or wish I had stumbled upon earlier. Reviewing them now, they're probably biased toward the enterprise market where I spent most of my career. I hope they provide food for thought.

1. What would it take for you to switch to a competitor?

This question can be intimidating or scary to ask, but has the potential to give you insight into what really differentiates your product in the mind of the customer. Their response (much of it nonverbal) may also give you some insight into the extent to which they've already pondered this query.

2. How would you characterize the business value of using our product?

This question can give you important insight into how your customer quantifies or qualifies the value of your product. Do they make a strict business case or are there other intangibles that they find valuable? As PMs, it nice to see both. You can then ask yourself if the benefits/value they perceive are based on factors that are likely to be stable and long-lived. If not, you've got some thinking to do. These types of conversations can help you understand your product's value proposition and create effective positioning that resonates with other similar customers.

3. Can I watch some people using our product?

We sometimes are hesitant to make a request that we perceive as disruptive to our customers'  business, but simply watching people use your product "in the wild" will give you insights that won't come from an artificial environment like a lab and will help you understand the broader business/operational context in which your product is used. You may also get input from stakeholders that you don't normally speak to (end users as opposed to decision makers, for example).

4. What would be the immediate impact on your company if you couldn't use our product tomorrow?

The answer to this question can be humbling. If the answer is "not much", you've got some soul-searching to do. Regardless, this question can help you understand the criticality of your product to the customer and may help you better prioritize development investments, including the typically neglected "stepchildren" of feature prioritization, topics like supportability.

5. If you could change one thing about our business relationship, what would it be?
This question shows sensitivity to your customers' non-functional challenges and may give you insight into adoption blockers that are generally reserved for sales professionals. For on-premise products, you may get insight into the potential value of other delivery and pricing models. You can also get insight on price point or the licensing model that would probably never come up in discussions about the product's functionality.

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