You have a problem understanding customer problems

Build things that matter. Build things that people love. Create value. This is your job as a product owner.

The way to do that is through empathy and customer centricity. I am convinced of it. I have anecdotal evidence from hundreds of product teams to prove it. Intuit created (and Nordstrom uses) a technique called a “follow me home,” Gillette does customer immersions when they expand globally to make sure they don’t fall into the trap of assuming all markets are the same, and even Einstein (allegedly) said: “I would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and then five minutes solving it.”

Yet, I have spent the past seven years struggling to get teams to think about problems over solutions, and 99% of teams fail to incorporate a ritual of investigating and learning about customer problems.

I understand, and have come to accept, that young startups fail at falling in love with the problem over the solution. But I won’t accept experienced product teams with endless resources who fail to properly embed a ritual of customer discovery into their new product development. So here’s a list of people to blame for this oversight and a few suggestions on how to fix it.

I blame the sales team for being territorial about people talking to existing customers and folks making promises about new features on their behalf.

  • Start off by talking to NEW CUSTOMERS (and stakeholders) only, and as you will learn later you should try to avoid mentioning the solution in most of the interview. You definitely should not be promising specific features just yet…. Your goal is to LEARN.
  • Share the new names with the sales team too? Show them how you are growing the funnel and decreasing sales cycles.

I blame HR for misaligned incentives. This applies mostly to sales teams who are rewarded for closing at all costs, when they should be rewarded for things like learning on the search side, and RETENTION on the execute side. Engineers are rewarded for shipping on time when they should be rewarded for things like retention.

I blame the engineers for building the wrong thing. I know you are here to build stuff and solve problems that no one else can solve. I know you trust your team. But have you ever played a game of telephone? It is hard enough to hear the truth directly from the source, it is near impossible once it is transmitted through even the inner circle of your team. It is your job, because it is everyone’s job, to understand (directly from the source) what you are solving BEFORE you put your head down and build. Sometimes you need to build the whole thing before you know, most times you don’t.

Product owners consider the following tips:

  • Allow the engineers to be the coaches of this new process. Have them hold the marketing department, or even you the product owner, responsible for completing the first round of problem interviews.At the very least bring them along to shadow.
  • Or have them watch a usability test. I have found that when we see how many assumptions we get wrong about the solution, it opens the door to realizing we may be wrong about assumptions regarding the problem.

I blame finance and the leadership decision makers. The real reason folks are not doing problem interviews is because no one is evaluating them in the funding process. They are still asking for oversized market analysis or mockups from IDEO.

  • Do not require a market research report in the “discovery phase”
  • Make funding decisions based on evidence collected in problem interviews and customer immersion/observation cycles

I blame Eric Ries, Steve Blank, IDEO and the for being so smart, and for making something so obvious sound so simple. Of course teams should do this. But they don’t – even when there is pull from above for this kind of research. Part of the reason is that I believe “Problem Interviews” has become a generic term and teams are confused.

  • Start with a learning objective (validate problem, validate segment, find new problem) rather than just going out to INTERVIEW CUSTOMERS for the sake of interviewing customers because of blogs like this one, or because some consultant told you to.
  • If you are trying to validate the problem with a specific customer segment, do a Follow Me Home. If you are trying to explore the problems with a specific segment, do interviews. If you are trying to find problems, do guerilla interviews. You get the idea.

By now you have deduced what I hope you had an inkling of all along. Of course I do not blame Eric. No one is to BLAME, but everyone is at FAULT when we build shitty products that no one wants. Especially when it could have been avoided by, at the very least, doing a cross-functional round of problem research, and at most, embedding a layer of Customer Discovery at every phase of your product’s lifecycle.

Build the habit. Companies like GE, Meetup and Intuit have managed to do so. It takes hard work, so start with this: Get outside the proverbial building by going inside your building (inside the building is OK just this once). Talk to folks in Sales, don’t try to push a solution, try to understand their problems. Talk to finance. Talk to your engineers. LEARN how to make this vital practice live inside your organization… and then let us know how you did it in the comments!

Written by Lean Startup Co. Education Faculty Adam Berk. If you seek to bring the entrepreneurial spirit to your large, complex organization, Lean Startup Company can help. We offer live and virtual training, coaching and consulting to empower people and companies to solve their own problems using entrepreneurial management, no matter their industry, size company, or sector of the economy. Email us.

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