Monthly Archives: September 2011

Guest Post: 9 Ways NOT to Present Your Company or Product Via Social Media

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NOTE: The following is a guest post by Natalie Hunter. If you want to submit your own guest post, click here for more information.

There are nearly 150 million active Facebook users in the United States, and about 70 percent log in at least once a day. Social media are powerful business tools that can be extremely effective when used correctly. Social media use accounts for nearly 25 percent of all time spent online. 64 percent of Facebook users have “liked” a particular brand they encountered through the website.

It’s estimated that by 2012, half of the world’s population will use some form of social media. It is easy to see why social media are important in promoting a product, business, or even online college. However, using social media the wrong ways can deal a severe blow to a company’s image.

1. Ignore Feedback

Not all feedback is going to be positive or even valid, but choosing to ignore all feedback is counterproductive and gives the impression that a business is out of touch or simply doesn’t care about its customers. Responses can be simple messages just thanking people for their feedback or acknowledging an issue. Some recognition of input is necessary.

2. Ignore Statistics

It’s not enough to just create an online presence. Businesses should track incoming traffic from links and social networks. Keep track of the number of people in social media groups and fan pages. Businesses should consider how many people are following them on Twitter and Facebook to be vital marketing data.

3. Send Mixed Messages

A business should have the same basic identify online and offline. This doesn’t mean there can’t be special perks offered to online customers, but keep the overall message the same. In other words, if a business is serious, responsible, and reliable offline, don’t try to present is as fun, hip, and spontaneous online. A confusing or mixed message is an instant turnoff. Keep it consistent.

4. Have Multiple Social Personalities

This is related to #3 but different. Creating one identify for Facebook and another for Twitter and yet another for LinkedIn leads to confusion. Maintain the same basic profile information across the board. This helps create and reinforce brand identify. The same goes for company logos and images. These should follow a similar theme used in all business-related postings. While some products may sell better with different approaches, or some messages better on some networks vs. others, the corporate personality should remain consistent.

5. Try to Go It Alone

Groups and communities are core when engaging in social media.  An individual web page is great for personal use, but the goal of a business is to be a part of a group. Creating a group or fan page is an excellent way to engage existing customers and bring in new ones. Consider having some real employees be a part of the mix to add credibility.

6. Always Make Assumptions

Sometimes reality is different from perception. Before jumping into the world of social media, businesses should take time to see what others are saying about their brands. Some adjustments may be necessary to create a consistent message.

7. Sharing Everything You Can

While it is important to engage customers and communicate, not everything needs to be shared. Social media use for business is about return on engagement. It’s important to share information and address concerns, but some issues (such as lawsuits) are best left off the table.

8. Engage in Online Battles

It’s not wise to go after competitors by engaging in personal attacks through social media. Leave  tackling the competition directly to advertisers.

9. Jump Into Every Service

It’s tempting to just create a profile on every social media service, but doing so has a few drawbacks. First, it’s not realistic to keep up with everything on every separate service, especially for businesses. A better approach is to make a list of what social networks work best for a particular business. More time can be better devoted to each of these social websites rather than trying to keep up with everything everywhere. Social websites that are rarely updated quickly loose customer interest, and even some that start out hot quickly become flops.

Like any other form of communication, some approaches work and some don’t work when it comes to social media. Carefully selected strategies and a coherent, unified message and online persona are the way to make social media effective business assets.

Natalie Hunter grew up wanting to be a teacher, and is addicted to learning and research. As a result, she is grateful for the invention of the Internet because it allows her to spend some time outside, rather than just poring through books in a library. She is fascinated by the different methodologies for education at large today, and particularly by the advent of online education.

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Worth Repeating: The Value of Simplicity

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Here’s an oldie but a goodie, and certainly even more relevant today than it was over 2 years ago when I first posted it. The benefits of simple solutions, reduced complexity, and eliminating unnecessary choices are starting to sink into our product development culture.

————-

We  have 3 different types of food blenders in our house. They are pictured below. I’ve tried to show them roughly to scale with one another.

blenders

The first is a “traditional” blender with a base, a large 56 oz. (1.75 L) pitcher-style container and several speed settings for the blades.

The second is an immersion blender with a number of attachments for mixing, blending, chopping etc.

The third is known as the Magic Bullet blender. It has a small 16 oz. (.45 L) container for the contents being blended and a simple on/off mechanism for the blades.

While they all have benefits and are clearly different, guess which one gets the most use in our household? Given the title of this post, it should be pretty obvious.

Yes, it’s blender #3, the Magic Bullet. And why?

Simplicity in all aspects of usage. Most blending jobs are very simple quick tasks. e.g. making a smoothie, or blending some sauce or something similar. The usage scenario goes something like this:

  1. Place the contents to be blended into the blending container
  2. Blend for 10-15 seconds (maybe 20 seconds in extreme cases)
  3. Pour the contents out of the container

There’s not much more than that. In *most* cases, the amounts are small (< 16 oz) so I don’t need the large blender which is both heavy and a bit of pain to clean. Also the immersion blender is pretty good for a lot of tasks, but I find it inefficient unless I truly have to immerse it into a pot or other container for “in place” blending.

In short, for the majority of my blending tasks, the Magic Bullet addresses the needs well. There is a lesson here for software and technology PMs, and I think you know what that is:

A simple solution that addresses a use case well is likely to be used often by your target audience.

Of course, most technology products do a lot more than a blender, but that doesn’t mean they have to be complex to use.

Saeed

NOTE: 2 years later, I still use the Magic Bullet regularly. I can’t remember the last time I used either the large blender or the immersion blender.

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Guest Post: 5 Innovation Lessons from Steve Jobs

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NOTE: The following is a guest post by Adam Costa. If you want to submit your own guest post, click here for more information.


Steve Jobs has been at the forefront of innovation for well over 30 years. But how did he build one of the most successful companies in history starting with only about $1,000 and an idea?

Put simply: innovation.

I’ve outlined five key lessons – with quotes from the man himself – that product managers can use to cultivate inspiration in their development.

The first step is to…

Always Look For Connections

Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak were stuck. They had an idea for a personal computer, but didn’t have a brand people could relate to. It was a new idea, and new ideas are often difficult for people to understand.

Jobs wanted a simple name that was in stark contrast to the corporate standard of the time, IBM. Jobs had previously worked in an apple orchard and – in a later discussion with Wozniak – Jobs pulled from the experience and named the company Apple. The process of coming up with the Apple logo is also worth reading.

The combination of new product and familiar name was a huge success. It’s a prime example of meshing together two unrelated concepts to create something unique and memorable.

Jobs himself has said “Creativity is just connecting things.”

He also cited LSD as “one of the two or three most important things I’ve done in life” because it helped him see things differently.

Of course, you don’t need LSD to see connections. But you must train yourself to see them.

Or better still, you can leverage your employees knowledge and experiences. Lee-Clark Sellers, Executive Programs Director for NC State University, says companies need to encourage employees to explore new, seemingly unrelated activities.

As she mentions in this post, employers must “provide new experiences for your teams that will motivate them to continue to look beyond their current boundaries for new and profitable ideas.”

To encourage this, host a lunch-and-learn series where different disciplines are represented. For example, have your head of marketing speak to your engineers, or an accountant speak to your sales people. By exposing employees to different frameworks, you greatly increase the chance of breakthrough innovations.

The next lesson from Jobs is to…

Treat Failure For What It Is…

A lesson. Coming from a man who has lost more money than most companies make in a lifetime, Jobs’ take on failure remains optimistic. As he once famously said:

“I’m the only person I know that’s lost a quarter of a billion dollars in one year…. It’s very character-building.”

Instead of lamenting setbacks (and losing a quarter of a billion dollars is a setback by any standard), Jobs learned from his mistakes. They must have paid off. Jobs quickly regained his losses and, after Disney bought Pixar, became the largest individual shareholder in Disney.

Failure – according to Jobs – is a way to build character. To learn what doesn’t work. Product managers often face issues with product development; embracing failure will help you improve your end design, make you a better manager and open your mind to new, previously unexplored possibilities.

Of course, the necessary ingredient to weather any storm is…

Be Passionate About What You Do

Steve Jobs has said:

“The only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking.”

With product management, your heart’s got to be either in the product and/or the process. If you don’t have passion, you’ll never do great work.

The truth is: passion shows. Plus, it helps you to…

Set High Standards… And Meet Them

Everyone has their own standards. Some are higher than others. This explains why many products never fully take off: either issues with research and development, product testing, price points or faulty relationships with suppliers can all lead to failure.

The solution to this, argues Jobs is to “be a yardstick of quality. Some people aren’t used to an environment where excellence is expected.”

There are many ways to create a culture of greatness. For example, you could print a large poster like this and ask your employees to sign it. Or better still, ask them what they are “the best at” and incorporate those skills into their everyday routine.

This can work wonders. By branding yourself (or your company culture) as the best, your employees and business partners will act accordingly.

Customers on the other hand, may not. Which leads us to Jobs’ final lesson:

Don’t Create Products for People

This may seem contradictory at first. Isn’t the whole purpose of creating a product to serve a need?

As an end result… yes. But it’s far easier to show someone a finished product, rather than ask their opinion along the way. Or as Jobs points out…

“It’s hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times people don’t know what they want until you show them.”

If you truly want innovation, you need to create things people aren’t aware of yet. You need to go beyond not just what they know, but what they think is possible.

Adam

Adam Costa is a business consultant who helps companies develop marketing materials, including sell sheets and product brochures. He can be reached via his website or on Twitter @ mradamcosta

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5 Pitfalls to Avoid When Performing Market Validation

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By Saeed Khan

Seek Truth Travis Jensen, over at the Software Maven blog has a post covering 5 ways you can get into trouble when performing market validation activities. He compares these activities to scientific experiments, where the outcomes depend on what you’re trying to prove (or disprove) as well as how you go about conducting your experiment.

In high school, most of us probably learned about, or at least heard of the Scientific Method. For over a thousand years, starting with the Arab scientist Ibn Al-Haytham, who is widely credited with establishing the scientific method, the focus of science has been seeking the truth. That should be our focus as well when performing market validation. As Jensen writes:

“Scientists and philosophers have spent countless years understanding how to make rational decisions. Knowing some of the common traps that lead us to make irrational conclusions is the first step.”

Jensen lists 5 ways that we can get ourselves into trouble.

  • Confirmation bias
  • Appeals to authority
  • Misaligned motivations
  • Overconfidence
  • Familiarity

He explains each of these with examples. Overall, a good read and a great reminder that there is indeed real discipline required as we do that part of our jobs.

Check out the full article: Software Maven – Fallacious Product Management.

Saeed

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That Product Owner (er…Backlog Manager) debate again….

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By Saeed Khan

There was a vibrant discussion on the Twitter Product Management Talk yesterday. The topic, a common one for Product Management types – the roles of Product Manager and Product Owner.

The discussion was lead by John Peltier who writes on Agile Product Management. Geoff Anderson who also participated, wrote a post on his blog – Tralfaz - about an exchange he and I had.

Geoff wrote about some of the issues he’s seen when companies add the Product Owner role.

These issues can be summarized as:

  • Putting very junior people in as Product Owners.  How junior? They “almost need to ask permission to use the bathroom”.
  • Organizational problems with Product Owners being part of Engineering. i.e. Putting the fox in charge of the henhouse.
  • The required frequency of communication needed between a Product Owner and Product Manager.

Here’s my take on these topics.

What is the right level of experience for Product Owners (or as I’ve advocated – Backlog Managers)

This one is easy. Put an inexperienced person in any role, and prepare to be underwhelmed. There is a trend to create junior “transition” titles — e.g. Associate Product Manager, Technical Product Manager — for people who are entering Product Management. Now there is nothing wrong with these types of titles, but the problems occur when there is a mismatch between the skills and the responsibilities for those roles.

Given the responsibilities of a Backlog Manager, such as ensuring the Eng teams stay focused on the right functionality, facilitating information flow, helping resolve problems as they are encountered, providing technical guidance when needed etc.  a junior person is the last person you’d want in this role.

The role needs a strong technical background, good judgement and decision making abilities, a persuasive attitude :-), and good communication skills. Doesn’t sound like a junior person to me. IMHO, the best person for this role, particularly in a company with a strong technical team, is an experienced ex-Engineer who wants to move into Product Management.

Where should the Backlog Manager reside

Without question, this role DOES NOT belong in Engineering. Plain and simple, it should be part of the Product Management organization, seated along with the corresponding Product Managers and Product Marketers who work on the same product.

Being part of the same team and sitting with them leads to the next point.

What is the right communication frequency

I’m always amazed at how much of a sticking point this can become in online discussions. What is the right frequency of communication between a Product Manager and a Backlog Manager? Well it’s quite simply the right frequency of communication. :-) i.e. whatever is required.

Sometimes it could be several times in a day. Other times it could be a few times a week. Other times, it could be once per week or even less. The reality is that there is always ebb and flow with information demand. But the question is how mature is the Engineering team and what kinds of day-to-day decisions are they making? Immature teams need constant care and feeding. Mature teams with experienced development management can work without daily guidance.

I personally have worked with remote teams (e.g. team is in India with me in North America) and aside from a weekly synchup call, other communications were primarily handled via email or if needed, a mid week phone call. And guess what, those teams delivered great products and didn’t lose their way because of any lack of communication.

So in short, what can companies do to succeed when implementing a Backlog Manager (or Product Owner)?

Get the right people, with the right level of experience, in the right organizational model and communicating the right amount and everything will work out fine. Easy!

Saeed

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Doing vs. Thinking – A case for corporate culture change

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by Prabhakar Gopalan

If you have been following the news lately – two CEO actions might rank at the top of the absurdity list for CEOs in corporate America acting without thinking.

HP’s CEO Leo Apotheker announced HP was exiting the PC business without a plan on what HP was going to do with the business or its customers.  Reed Hastings announced Netflix was going to split into two companies against consumer criticism over its recent pricing changes.

A systemic problem

You could overlook these actions as one-off errors.  I would argue these are actually systemic problems in how decisions are made in corporate America.  When you have boards that are ineffective, advisors (consulting firms) that produce nothing but PowerPoints loaded with graphs and charts from freshly minted MBAs with no real world experience or insight, partners busy selling business, and a culture where CEOs are expected to be corporate saviors, you end up with too much power in the hands of one person or group of people who lack empathy and a systemic understanding of their decisions and impact.

The way we have dysfunctional organizations structured today is the following – lots of powerless doers and a hierarchy of powerful decision makers.  The doers actually go and get real work done.  The decision makers simply make decisions with no understanding of action or result.  These are the wordsmiths and spin factory engines that feed the media and the public with hastily made PowerPoints and press briefs created by PR factories dedicated to the cause of the corporation.

Back to the question on Apotheker and Hastings.  Why did they act this way?  Was it lack of empathy for their users?  Was it because they lack the ability to listen? Was it because they had poor advice?  Was it because their leadership team was ineffective?  What motivates people to make such hasty and bad decisions?  Is it power?

In fact, Hastings decision seemed so hasty (no pun intended) that Netflix didn’t even check for the ownership of Twitter account Qwikster or make an effort to acquire it before making the announcement.

I want to point to two resources that speak on power, corruption and empathy that are worth looking at in this context:

Exhibit A is a recent article in Wired magazine – How Power Corrupts. It concludes:

The larger lesson is that Foucault had a point: The dynamics of power can profoundly influence how we think. When we climb the ladder of status, our inner arguments get warped and our natural sympathy for others is vanquished. Instead of fretting about the effects of our actions, we just go ahead and act. We deserve what we want. And how dare they resist. Don’t they know who we are?

Exhibit B is a book by Harvard Business School professor Rakesh KhuranaSearching for a Corporate Savior: The irrational quest for charismatic CEOs. Rather than write my own review of this book, let me quote the top reader review on Amazon for this book :

A brutally honest look at what is wrong with how CEOs are chosen in America today. I read an advance copy of this book and could not believe it was allowed to go to press. Dr. Khurana certainly has put his professional aspirations on the line to be so bold, but this is the kind of book that makes a difference in the world.

This book presents what I considered some amazing and enlightening information not normally available to ordinary people. We can read about the stupefying emoluments, titanic disasters, and spectacular firings of CEOs in the popular press, but it is hard to find out the inner workings of how these people got into these positions of influence to begin with. Many of the academic treatises on management I have read seem like distant observations from an ivory tower. Refreshingly, parts of this book sounded to me like the information came from furtive phone calls late at night.

Of course, part of the problem is that the foxes are already in charge of the chicken coop. I, too, would recommend this book to members of corporate boards responsible for the performance of top executives. There are plenty of brilliant executives who should be promoted based upon sound character and true leadership ability. Everyone knows that in many cases this is not happening, but Dr. Khurana has identified the defective process that underlies the problem. It is up to boards of directors to learn about and correct their mistakes.

The final page of the book uses an analogy from the Wizard of Oz about drawing back the curtain to shed light on the inner workings of power, and Dr. Khurana has done a good job of this. His book is to CEO succession as Sinclair Lewis’ “The Jungle” was to the meat packing industry–it will turn your stomach and make you cry out for change if you read it.

Let’s not forget that there are managers  that handled similar circumstances with much better outcomes not just for the companies or its shareholders, but for the users, customers and the larger market as a whole.  IBM exited the PC business gracefully with a clear plan.  Google and VMware raised prices recently but acted responsibly against user backlash.  How often do we see these kind of actions?

So what is the solution?

The solution isn’t more regulation or oversight.  That is just putting more watchers instead of doers.  What we need is a radical change in corporate culture.  A culture of transparency, empathetic and systemic understanding of problems, decisions and impacts, inclusive and collaborative decision-making across the entire organization.

Unless we change organizational design, flattening meaningless structures, hierarchies and letting people who do the work make the decisions collaboratively and transparently, we will see these managerial overheads bring down value quickly and irreversibly.

Prabhakar Gopalan

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Guest Post: Know thy Customer – How to Segment your Market

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NOTE: The following is a guest post by Veronica Figgarella. If you want to submit your own guest post, click here for more information.

Market segmentation is a fundamental activity when analyzing potential targets for a product.  Proper segmentation ensures that a product roadmap and its respective marketing efforts are focused on a specific group, aligning customers’ needs and marketplace offerings.

But segmenting a market usually poses a challenge for Marketers and Product Managers alike since collecting the relevant data and understanding the critical segmentation variables are pivotal to gaining reliable insight to identify the ‘market opportunity’.  Jumping into quantitative segmentation can be overwhelming especially for products of mass consumption where millions of units are sold through multiple channels and in different consumption occasions (e.g. how do we segment the market of Diet Cola drinkers?). Thus, selecting relevant variables and proper segmentation methods are the first steps to defining a strategic segmentation that can drive refined quantitative research.

Deductive Logic Segmentation

A simple yet powerful segmentation method to identify relevant market segments is through “Deductive Logic”. Deductive logic is powerful as it results in a valid argument as long as the premises are true.

To apply deductive segmentation one can rely on segmentation trees. They function like a classification tree, but instead of using statistical criteria, they use deductive logic. Conclusions will follow a set of premises that are neither wrong nor right, as they are based on our own hypothesis. The quality of the tree depends on the validity of your assumptions. The trees can be compared to a mental map that will allow Product Managers to see all possible segments to better calculate the real market opportunity.

An Example

Let’s look into the case of finding segments for a Diet Cola.

Before drawing the tree we have to choose appropriate segmentation variables. It is recommended to start with variables that are relevant to the product supplier (Uncles and Bock 2002) e.g. customer profitability: frequency of consumption (number of units/time) or volume of consumption (size of product/time), and suppliers’ bargaining power (how many similar products can the customer obtain at a similar price and in a similar place).

These variables will help identify segments based on frequency and place of purchase and also consider the consumers’ choices against competitors. Remember that choosing other variables will also be valid but as deductive logic explains, the validity of the outcome will depend on the quality of variables.

Followed by supplier variables, you must choose consumer segmentation variables that are strictly related to the product we are analysing. Thus if you want to segment using age as a variable then you must ask  yourself “Is age a determinant variable in Diet Cola consumption?” It is probably not as relevant as knowing the product benefits, availability and the point of sale or awareness of the brand.

Building the Segmentation Tree

After choosing the relevant segmentation variables:  frequency of consumption, volume of consumption (size of product/time), knowing the product benefits, availability and the point of sale or awareness of the brand, you must rank them logically from most important to least important.

For example, frequency and volume of consumption should be placed high in the tree because they will show profitable segments of consumers directly related to the market opportunity. Brand awareness, although important, has less direct influence on the product’s consumption and is more difficult to quantify (although in the case of Diet Colas brand awareness and product availability are key for sales).

First, we have to ask the obvious question: Does the customer drink colas at all? And does the customer drink sugar-free colas? These logic basic questions raise at least 6 macro segments.  At this stage, a Product Manager can start discarding or reconsidering segments not relevant to the opportunity she is trying to evaluate.

Continuing with the logical variable ranking; the following order is suggested:

  • Frequency of purchase
  • Volume of purchase
  • Brand awareness
  • Product availability

A good and free tool to build segmentation trees (and mind maps) is www.mind42.com

Discovering Segments

Once all segmentation variables are displayed in a segmentation tree, relevant segments are consequently ‘discovered’.

The point of this exercise is to find the segment or segments that will deliver business return.

As shown in the tree above, consumer segments are identified by following the arrows and multiplying the number of options per segmentation variable. For example, Diet Cola drinkers that consume the product 3 times a week form 27 segments (3 options of product presentation (X) 3 options of brand awareness (X) 3 options of product availability). The same process is applied for all three frequency of purchase options, resulting in 27 additional segments (18 for one time a week diet cola drinkers and 9 for non cola drinkers).

All 54 segments are not necessarily valid or worthy of further investigation.

For example the ‘3 times a week’ diet cola drinker that has high brand awareness and access to the product is not a segment that the business should spend additional resources on. There is no point increasing the consumption of that particular segment given that their propensity to purchase is already high.

On the other hand, it is worth evaluating segments where diet cola is consumed only once a week and brand awareness and product availability is low.

Validating Segments

It is necessary to validate segments that have been ‘discovered’ through this process.

Here are some ways of validating the segments:

  • Differential strategy development: do the differences between the segments suggest that different strategies should be developed for different segments?
  • Accessibility: can the different strategies be targeted towards the different segments?
  • Communicability: will the people responsible for implementing the segmentation be able to understand it?
  • Technical validity: are the true differences between the segments known?

This simple yet comprehensive taxonomy can help us narrow the number of quantitative analysis needed to identify the true potential of a market.

Once the segments have been identified and validated, narrowing them to the valid ones will help Product Managers quantify the real market opportunity and support their product’s business case. Additionally its helps in prioritizing the number of product improvements needed since it brings deeper understanding of the customer group the product addresses.

Veronica

Veronica Figarella is a Product Manager and Marketing Specialist with more than 9 years of experience in the Telecom industry. She has worked in both Latin America and Australia. Veronica is based in Venezuela and works as a Small Business Consultant and teaches an undergraduate course on developing entrepreneurial skills.  You can reach her on Twitter: @vfigatelix

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Dear Alan: 15 minute interview guide for Win/Loss Analysis?

I recently had a request asking for help to design a win/loss analysis interview. As this topic has general applicability across industries, I thought I’d share some of that exchange with you, dear readers.

Question from PM: “My colleagues and I here are looking for a good but brief 15 minute interview guide for win/loss analysis.”

My response (AA): Why 15 minutes? I generally find it takes 30 minutes to get to the real answers. Also what is the ASP for your product? If you work large deals, I again question the 15 minute limit. Are you planning to do a single interview per sales opportunity? How many stakeholders do you generally have in a sale?

PM: 15 minutes is what we were asked to limit ourselves to by the Sales rep I believe.  I agree with your point that more would be better.  We can try for that.

AA: If all of my earlier assumptions are correct, then a 15 minute interview could actually be worse than no interview at all. It takes most interviewees about 10-15 minutes to warm up to the interviewer and start to open up. I spend the first 15 minutes helping the interviewee get comfortable with me by asking some feel-good questions such as their own professional background, the story leading up to the consideration, and so on. This also allows me to understand the real drivers of the decision as opposed to the final conclusions.  I don’t ask my high-value questions (about final conclusions) until I reach that tipping point of trust and openness with the interviewee. So if you start with your high-value questions right off the bat, you are going to get the defensive answers, not the open answers. Also you will not have any way to question the answers you get because you haven’t studied the underlying drivers.

So in 15 minutes, you will get the same answers that the sales rep already knows. You’d be better off interviewing the sales rep and recognizing that it’s sales’ opinion. If you interview the client for 15 minutes, it becomes the client’s answer when it’s really just the surface answer. That’s why it’s worse to do the interview – it just legitimizes the surface answers and gives them more weight. The sales rep will likely say (to you directly or to themselves), “you see, I knew all that. That’s why I don’t think you needed to do that interview, and that’s why I’m only ever going to give you 15 minutes with *my* customers.

Most of my interviews are 30-60 minutes in length. No sales people allowed on the call. In your situation, I would guess that you need 3 interviews per account (just a guess), and plan on 45 minutes per interview.
Final point: It’s critical that you understand who owns the account. Everyone thinks that sales (and more often, the sales person) owns the account. That’s not true. The company owns the account and provides almost exclusive access to sales because we delegate revenue production to sales. However the company needs to retain the sense that sales is just the steward of the account. When the company needs information like win/loss analysis to remain competitive, this is something the company has every right to perform. The company needs to do it in a way that does not disrupt sales, but neither can the company be prevented from doing its research by overly-protective sales team. It’s a balance, but we need to remember who owns the account.
And if you are not getting access, often only the CEO can fix it. You need to sell the need to the CEO.
Readers, beware: Most of you can probably do a lot with a single interview per account, but 15 minute interviews are worse than no interview at all. 30 minutes is a minimum, and no sales people are allowed to join the call.
Hope that helps.
- Alan

Guest Post: What can Tacos Teach Product Managers about Social Product Development?

NOTE: The following is a guest post by Catherine Constantinides. If you want to submit your own guest post, click here for more information.

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Warning: The following article contains many puns.

Product management and the social web
The social web is quickly becoming a popular method for customers to express product and service related ideas, issues, questions and problems. Social conversations within customer communities are happening much more frequently and in real-time and are starting to receive a lot of attention in the product management world.

The question is: How can product managers use social media monitoring to build the right product requirements and make more informed product-related decisions?

Lessons from the taco industry
Let’s take a recent product innovation – the flat-bottom taco  - to illustrate how the social web can provide product managers with valuable insights that can be integrated into the product development process.

What a concept. A taco designed with a flat bottom that sits firmly upright when placed on a flat surface. Finally, taco lovers can easily stuff in all their favourite toppings without worrying about them falling out. Truly a revolutionary product innovation that changes the taco eating experience forever! Any good product manager knows that products are never flawless. And the flat bottom taco is no exception. Using social media monitoring I got to the er-  “bottom” of things and discovered some very interesting information…

When products fall “flat” in the marketplace
Despite all the hype surrounding this innovation, social media search revealed that customers who had tried the flat bottom taco had a lot of feedback regarding its design. Although the new taco structure was sturdy and allowed for easy stuffing, its flattened, wider design made it awkward and difficult to bite. Other individuals complained that the new flat tortilla base cracked easily when bitten. Many customers even expressed that the flattened sides caused the stuffing to fall out easily (defeating the whole purpose of why it was invented in the first place). Seems like maybe the flat bottom taco wasn’t all that is was “cracked up” to be (I warned you about the puns).

Joking aside, tuning in to these conversations and collecting this feedback provides valuable insight that product managers can leverage to improve product features or product functionality.

Here are a few ways product managers can use social media monitoring:

1. Monitor social media for customer feedback on a continuous basis

With customer needs and preferences constantly changing and evolving, one of the biggest challenges in product management is to create profitable products that exceed customer expectations. Traditional methods of collecting feedback, such as surveys and focus groups, are often too time-consuming and expensive. Worse, once the results have been collected, they need to be integrated into the development flow. By tuning in to the social web, product managers can obtain feedback about products in real-time, and directly incorporate it into the product lifecycle.

2. Actually respond to customer feedback
Customers need to know that product managers are listening and taking action on their feedback. Innovative tools like social media monitoring allow you to respond to conversations directly on the same social media channels they came through. For instance, if someone expressed on Twitter that the flat bottom taco should come in different flavours, product development teams can engage in a conversation that further elaborates on the details. Responding to your customers is a win-win strategy for both you and your company, as customers see that you care and you get valuable information to help build better products.

3. Don’t let your competitors get a piece of the taco-uh, I mean pie

The social web also provides many opportunities to know what customers are saying about your competitor’s products and services. Naturally a revolutionary innovation like the flat bottom taco is sure to spark the attention of other players in the taco industry. A sharp product manager chasing that big promotion won’t hesitate to listen to customers’ conversations and try to get a piece of the action by introducing a new product that is an improvement from the competitor’s offering. Social media monitoring tools can be used to find out what customers are saying about competitors’ products.

4. The use of social media tools must be strategic.
Social media efforts cannot be used as a stand-alone strategy. Insight gained from these efforts must be integrated with other business processes such as customer service and help desk, idea management, requirements management, and project management. They must also be visible, and traceable across the development process. Finally, in the true nature of social collaboration, this information should be shared with both internal and external stakeholders such as business partners, employees and especially customers. It should also be accessible across departments like sales, customer support, marketing, product development and engineering.

One final note before I leave you to go make some tacos. I used the example of the flat-bottom taco to illustrate the critical role that the social web plays in the product innovation process. However, social media monitoring can be a useful tool that can be used by many different verticals such as IT, finance, manufacturing, retail, hospitals, transportation, and government.

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Catherine Constantinides works at OneDesk, a developer of social business applications that connect the customer to the product development process. She is also a regular contributor on OneDesk’s blog. Oh…and she loves tacos.

Art education: The unmet need of product managers

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Today, I am going to discuss about the unmet need of product managers  - art education.   Before a flame of comments to this post start to appear, let me be clear – I’m advocating for art education as a necessary complement to expand the scope of product management education, not a replacement for process education.

I came across an insightful blog post in Forbes by Steve Denning (whose book The Leader’s Guide to Radical Management occupies a prominent place in my bookshelf) suggesting how Taylor-ish ideas of measurement proposed by Bill Gates simply don’t work for education in the 21st century.  In my opinion, they don’t work in many many places, but we’ll keep that for another day and focus on product management education for now.

How we make and sell products today has changed a lot from 10 or even 5 years ago.  Products and services are increasingly becoming works of art.  Some produced to mass scale and some custom made. Is product management education keeping up with that change?   Traditional product management education provides a structured curriculum for filling documents, forms, templates, and codifying the process of product management but misses something very important – the ‘soft’, creative, right brain faculties that need to be tapped in the making of a whole product manager.  To understand this we need to look at  the difference between art education and trade school education.  Traditional product management’s focus is on the trade part more than the art side.

Art is part self learned, part experiential, and fully exploratory – there is no standard metric to measure e.g. I can’t say how artfully designed a smart phone is by giving 100 points to the iPhone 4, and 92 points to an Android based phone.  Consumer Reports or a gadget reviewer might give us that one number we want to base our buying decision upon, but the truth is, those numbers don’t mean much.  They satisfy our Taylorism trained appetite to measure and feel good about our decisions.  We cannot quantitatively define art (except at auctions).   Did you check out that visually appealing, easy to use SaaS application created by a small team of entrepreneurs?  Well, that’s a product of art – an expression of freedom, doing product management without a manual, without controls, forms and templates.  A product that came from a strong sense of empathy for the user, a collaborative experience among the team that designed it and the users who beta tested it, who gave feed back; and engineers and designers who worked together, who experimented without large organizational silos, to rapidly, incrementally and continuously improve ideas and let the best ideas win.  Yes, there are controls, metrics and processes there too (e.g. Agile methods), but those are for continuous improvement versus continuous enforcement – a blind policy based approach to control that results in bureaucracy.

Contrast the above with products and services created by trade school education.  Trade is repeating the same effort of what has already been codified with very little or no deviation from the standard.  It is, in a product manager’s language, filling those standard templates, forms and documents you have – over and over – the Requirements document, the PRD, the MRD, the business case template, and expecting a different outcome.  The bloated, expensive, completely clue less enterprise software coming out of a large software organization is an example of that trade school form filling, template-ized education model. Many of the product managers in these organizations have gone through product management education.  Some even proudly display their certificates in their cubicles. So what’s missing? Art education.

If secondary school and college education aren’t fulfilling that role, the onus is on providers of product management education to fulfill that unmet need – rekindling the ability to create art in an otherwise boring corporate cubicle. Teaching sketching, white boarding, collaboration, experimentation, influence, story telling, presentations and such would be a start. Who’s up for that?

- Prabhakar Gopalan

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