Why talk to customers?

by C. Todd Lombardo

What happens when you talk to people who use your product?

In the next 60 seconds, make everyone in your office happy. Go on. Do it!

I’ll wait right here.

Did it work? How did you do it? How did you know what to measure? How did you know what made each of them happy?

This is an exercise I often run at the start of a workshop. Unless you know your co-workers incredibly well, you likely can only assume what will make them happy. How would you know what makes them happy? You observe them. You talk to them. You get to know them. Only then might you be able to experiment to learn what might make them happy. Absent a more intimate knowledge of their lives, you may miss the mark in making them truly happy.

Let’s consider this in the context of a product team and their customers. A few years ago when I joined a product organization, I asked some members of the product team how often they went to speak to customers. They informed me the organization had “Customer Visit Days” which happened approximately once per year.

More recently, when a Fresh Tilled Soil team member met with the CTO of a company to discuss a project he heard, “assume I know everything about our customers.” And why shouldn’t they? They have worked in their industry for years and have deep knowledge of their sector.

This past week, I was talking to a colleague working with a non-profit that seeks to disrupt voting technologies. It turns out this company had spent most of its initial years only examining the technology and had not spent any time speaking directly with voters.

I have an endless supply of anecdotes like this, which begs me to ask: Why is it that so many teams seemingly refuse to get out of the building and go to where their customers are? Are they that attached to their PowerPoint presentations, Excel spreadsheets and conference rooms?

It turns out that you can learn a lot by doing this. Here are two examples:

Global Program Manager at YouTube, Jacquelle Amankonah, looks to understand YouTube’s “Creators” (note: they don’t use the word ‘user’). Her team holds “Behind the Scenes” sessions that get the YouTube product team to directly see how their Creators work. Sometimes Creators are two kids with a skateboard and an iPhone. Other times they’re a full-blown production house. Jacquelle distributes a “Creator Voice Report” that includes verbatim comments around the successes or failures of their use of the YouTube product. Not only does this report obtain valuable feedback, it also increases the product team’s empathy for the customer. Money doesn’t buy empathy. You have to earn it by getting out there in your customer’s environment, even if it seems similar to the stand-up desk you’re at right now.

When Austin Knight looked into reworking HubSpot’s front page, he first convinced his managers to let him hire drunkusertesting.com so that he could obtain unfiltered feedback. The results of that test highlighted the fact that the HubSpot web page was speaking to HubSpotters, not their customers. The page had many buzzwords that HubSpot employees used on a daily basis, but their visitors and prospects rarely used, or even understood. Once Austin and his team realized this, they redesigned the pages while inquiring with customers about how they might describe HubSpot to their colleagues. Their iterations captured the essence, and after launch they saw a 22% increase in conversion rate as well as an 18% decrease in exit rate.

Brutal honesty from your customers will highlight what is preventing you from building something that delights your customers.

Many struggle with this type of customer interaction because you learn that you’re wrong. Who wants to be wrong? Learning where and how you’re off the mark just might allow you to discover what’s right for your customers. It’s okay to be wrong, just learn from it and move on.

About C. Todd Lombardo

C. Todd is a leader who wears many hats, all at once: Author, designer, scientist, professor, and visualizer.  After originally beginning his career...