You are too far from your customers

When your customer’s problems are hypothetical to anyone on your team you have a big problem

How often have you seen a company working for months or years to add features to an existing product — an email goes out announcing an exciting new list with all of these fantastic new features and the response is…

Meh… that’s nice, but I could do without most of this stuff.

I have a background working in large B2B companies and this still seems to be the norm rather than the exception. There is still a massive amount of effort that goes into building add-on features and new products that no one really cares about.

But with all we’ve learned over the past few years with the Lean Start-Up, design thinking, rapid prototyping, etc. — shouldn’t we know better?

As is so often the case, this is not a situation where the answer is a mystery — in fact, everyone has all the right tools at their disposal.

This is a problem of execution.

The simple truth is that many companies are organized in a way that keeps them from executing on the best practices that we already know.

Don’t let this be you

Typically a large enterprise company will be organized roughly like this:

  • Salespeople are spread out and located close to the customers. They spend their time learning about the customers’ problems and trying to demonstrate how the company’s products can help solve these problems
  • Product managers are located all together in the global or regional headquarters designing new features, new products, and packaging these together into a comprehensive marketing proposition that demonstrates the value they create customers
  • Manufacturing (in the case of a physical product) or Developers (in the case of a digital product) are in a low-cost, offshore location and build to the specifications of the product managers

There are countless large companies that operate in this way and have been historically very successful.

But if you examine this structure closely, it will be pretty apparent where you start to see issues:

  • Sales is the primary conduit for interaction with the customers, so all first-hand knowledge of the customer sits with them
  • Salespeople are rated on how much they sell (many with very aggressive sales targets at that). Establishing a good feedback loop to product managers takes a lot of time away from selling, so most knowledge doesn’t get shared
  • The knowledge that does get passed back to product managers is often distorted the further it gets away from the primary source (think of the “telephone game”)
  • So product managers are conceptualizing products and features based on what they think customers need
  • The developers or manufacturers who are so far removed from both the customers and the product strategy that they need to have very clear specifications to build from
  • And even if they felt valued enough and were encouraged to take the initiative to try to improve the products (which is often not the case), they would anyway have too little knowledge of how the product is actually used to suggest any useful enhancement or point out any design flaws
Inevitably, you end up with products that miss the mark with customers and don’t actually solve a problem.

Shifting accountability

So naturally, given the fact that all of these teams sit in different locations, they start to blame each other for what went wrong.

And you get something like this:

  • Sales blames the product managers for designing poor products
  • The product managers blame the salespeople for not explaining the products correctly to the customers and they blame the developers/manufacturers for not executing their vision correctly
  • And the developers/manufacturers feel isolated and blame the product managers for not being clear enough in their specifications.
This leads to a culture of shifting accountability where it is very difficult to get everyone on the same page to solve for the customer’s needs.

In the past, large companies could absorb this with no problem. The negative culture was a drag on performance but it was mostly offset by the cost savings of offshoring.

But now with the speed that anybody can go to market with a disruptive product, nobody can afford to operate in this way.

You already know the solution

But thankfully, everyone already knows what the solution is. Most people are already very familiar with basic UX design concepts and rapidly iterating to find product/market fit, etc.

You have all of the necessary tools in their hands, but the difficulty is putting these things into practice without cutting corners.

What you will see from larger companies especially, is thinking like this — let’s take a few of our product managers and put them in a room with glass walls and post-it notes and tell them to do design thinking.

Meanwhile, all of the actual development of the product is done in an offshore location with an outsourced team and all of the actual interactions with the customer are still left to the salespeople.

Everyone needs to feel the customer’s problems and observe them first hand, over and over and over again.

If you are in B2C, you really have no excuse not to continually observe how your product is being used by customers and incorporate their feedback. It is more challenging in B2B to get this view, but this is something you need to solve for if you are going to be consistently successful.

As a start:

  • Get everyone together in the same place. Sales, developers, product all in the same location. (manufacturing is more difficult, but as you are developing products on-shore production in small batches or 3D printing are ways you can replicate this)
  • Put your product managers and developers in front of your customers
  • Record interactions with your customers so everyone can see them. (with their permission of course)
  • Think very carefully about outsourcing and what the side effects will be

These are just a few ideas, but you can really use your imagination here to come up with all sorts of ways to keep the problems of your customers at the center of everything you do.

The key to keeping your customer’s needs in focus is to make them real to everyone in your organization.

Otherwise, you are just guessing.

This story is published in The Startup, Medium’s largest entrepreneurship publication followed by 316,638+ people.

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