Focusing on the problem not on potential solutions

In my last post I spoke about communication and how proper communication requires dissemination amongst your organization.  Today I want to talk about the other side of that, listening and asking probing questions.  One of the key mistakes a new Product Manager makes when talking to a customer is to immediately move from a brief discussion of a new problem into “how” you can solve the problem with a new feature.  Let’s look at an example. 

You are on the phone with a potential customer, it is one of the first calls with this customer.  The sales person asked you to be on the call because the customer asked about a potential feature in the product on their last call.  At the outset of the call, the customer starts explaining the feature, and the “requirements” they would have for it.  The sales person gets into the discussion, and starts adding to the requirements.  The call moves into more of a brainstorming session and the sales person and the customer start feeding off of each other and coming up with some pretty interesting ideas. 

This is a good thing, right?  We are developing rapport with the customer and are coming up with some really great ideas, right? 

This is actually the absolute worst outcome of a call like this.  There is a time and a place for “solutioneering” like this,  however, an initial discovery call is not the right forum.  What should have happened is that you (the Product Manager) should have directed the call to first focus on what problem the customer is trying to solve.  Remember, as a Product Manager your job is not to just build something that somebody (in this case maybe just one person) will pay for.  Your job is to build a product that will appeal to a targeted audience, add value to that audience, and bring in the revenue that your company is expecting.  

In a previous post I talked about how ideas are just the tip of the iceberg.  We know that before an idea becomes reality it must be vetted, prioritized, executed and launched.  Customer requests (ideas) are no different than any other source from this respect.  The way in which you respond to the idea is where things are a little nuanced. 

Your first step is to clearly understand the problem.  You can achieve this by first asking your probing questions (the 5 whys).   Your questioning should get you to a point where you understand all of the following: the rationale behind the feature request; the true problem the customer wants solved; the value that solving the problem will bring to the customer; if the problem is complex, the priority of solving the different aspects of the problem; the urgency the customer has in solving the problem. 

From there you can follow your normal vetting process to determine if you should move forward with the idea or not.  This is the tricky part.  It is possible that this feature (or lack of it) is a deal breaker for the potential customer.  So, if you don’t have it, the customer walks, and the sales person does not get their commission.  There could also be time sensitivity as the sales person wants to close the deal prior to the end of the quarter, or the customer has end of year funding they need to spend. 

While there may be a need for urgency, it does not mean that you should ignore the overall vetting process.  It is still your responsibility to do what is best for your company, and that means vetting the idea and determining if it should move forward.  If you decide you cannot move forward with the idea, make sure that you clearly explain it to the customer and the sales team. 

Most of the time, ideas like this end up being nice-to-have items that are not deal breakers.  While the customer (and even your own sales team) might treat it as a deal breaker when they are asking for it in the beginning, you will often find that when the final answer comes back as “no” the customer will be more agreeable than you thought. 

I mentioned above that solutioneering does have a right time and place.  For now just know that in general a sales call of any type is the wrong forum for such an activity.  I could write a lot more on this topic, however, I will save that for another story.