Nothing Important Happens In The Office

We product managers are always told that we need to spend a lot of time with customers, and with the market, to create successful products. This advice, while good, is not actionable. It’s vague and aspirational. And, indeed, you might even ask “why is this good advice?”

It's very difficult to find the signal - market problems - in the noise - our conversations with customers and prospects.
It’s challenging to find the signal – market problems – in the noise – our conversations with customers and prospects.
In fact, there are a lot of questions:

  • What should you be doing with those customers when you visit them?
  • Why is this so good?
  • How do you do it?
  • How do you track that you’ve done it?
  • What do you do with what you’ve learned (if anything)?
  • How does spending time with customers and the market make you and the company more successful?

Without guidance on these questions it can be a paralyzing situation. And believe me, many product management organizations are paralyzed in this area. With the result that they tend not to spend much time doing it.

That’s a big problem. If you remember the Secret Product Management Framework, the fundamental thing we work with as product managers is market problems. And finding those market problems depends on what customers’ real issues are, the ones they will pay to solve.

Finding a previously unsolved, important customer problem can make you, and your company, a lot of money.

And you can’t just guess – that’s a sure road to failure. So you have to get out there.


Even if you are “going out there” are you doing it as effectively as you could be? To be successful, you need a strategy. And you need a methodology for making use of what you learn.

You need to talk to your customers, your prospects, your competitors’ customers, and even people who aren’t buying anything, but are like the people in your target market. What you’re going to do is ask them open-ended questions about what they do in their jobs, and about their frustrations, problems and challenges. (I say “jobs” but it could just be “life” as well!)

I have covered many techniques for how to do this in earlier blog posts, including links to other peoples’ articles.

But simply gathering all this information is not enough. The signal you get from the market is weak. It’s often via offhand remarks, or even observations that you make. These lead to further investigations and lines of questions. Then, with luck and more conversations, you may find you’ve discovered a real market problem you can solve.

Building a weak signal detector

We have to have a lot of these conversations to get enough signal, and even then, the signal has to get through our crowded brains to emerge. We PMs are cognitively overloaded – we all know that – so expecting weak signals to get through is a pretty high expectation.

So you can use use tools to enhance your cognition. (And I don’t mean Adderal!) Many of our knowledge-oriented tools are focused on improving the weaknesses of our cognition, like remembering things (all the to-do lists and GTD applications and wikis). Or organizing things (photo organizers, folders in your OS, tagging in Evernote, dropbox). Or helping to find patterns in a lot of data (big data, Excel charts, even search).

Well, you have all this data – all your conversations with customers – but you don’t have tools to help you winnow that data. You don’t have tools that are good at helping you find the “signal” in the noise of many customer conversations.

You May Have To Roll Your Own System of Record for Market Problems

That leaves you the option to “make your own.” By which I mean, figure out how to use the tools you do have at your disposal to enhance your cognition. This might be a spreadsheet, or a wiki page, or an Evernote notebook. Or a combination of any of these and many more options.

Because it’s not a purpose-built tool, it’s likely to require more manual work than you want. But, the return can be very high.

By the way, this is one reason methodologies like Strategyn’s ODI (also known as “Jobs To Be Done”) are so compelling. They actually give you a set of interview questions, and a form into which to put the answers. And they, amazingly but maybe not so amazingly, help people come up with new product ideas that succeed.

How Do You Do It? Find Out Next Time

I’ll continue this topic in the next article. In the meantime, you can check out my podcast episode on a “roll your own system of record” for some ideas. I have a few other posts you can check out as well.

I’d love to hear what you’re doing now to capture and analyze your customer conversations.


About the author

Your host and author, Nils Davis, is a long-time product manager, consultant, trainer, and coach. He is the author of The Secret Product Manager Handbook, many blog posts, a series of video trainings on product management, and the occasional grilled pizza.

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