Thursday, 10 November 2016

Collaboration and communication: the key to crystallising customer needs

Having managed products in a range of industries from media to finance, there is one thing which I’m always asked: “How can we launch the next big industry changing product?” Which means I’m continuously on the lookout for the next game changing, industry leading innovation which will impress our customers and partners. Product managers are always under pressure to be innovative, it’s part of the job description, but the risk is that innovating for innovation’s sake often results in products that may please the developer because they use the latest technologies and the sales team because they have something new and shiny to present to potential customers, but it won’t do what all products should strive to do – solve a problem for a customer. This should lie at the heart of everything we do.

On a recent training course we were asked what we would do in the following scenario. In one hand we had one orange and in the other hand we had two demanding customers both asking for the orange immediately. This was the only orange in the world, so what could we do in this situation to satisfy both customers? My colleagues and I came up with a whole whiteboard full of options for how we could best use the orange. We could cut it in half and get them to share. We could use the seeds from the orange to grow more oranges. We could even eat the orange ourselves and pretend there was no orange to begin with! However, none of these options would result in a satisfactory outcome for the customers. In the end the answer was simple. What we needed to do was ask the customers what they wanted the orange for. This would have resulted in the first customer saying they wanted the peel of an orange to make candied orange peels and the second customer saying they wanted the juice of an orange to add to a cake recipe. In this scenario knowing the problem that these customers were trying to solve would have resulted in the single orange satisfying both of their needs. Simple!

Product management should be all about problem solving and really getting under the skin of what the needs and frustrations of our customers are (regardless of whether those customers are internal or external). All too often customers ask for a specific solution, and in order to please them we build the requested solution only to find that it doesn’t quite do what the customer really needed. Customers are experts in their business line and we are experts in ours. The best products therefore should be created collaboratively with the customer detailing the problems they are trying to solve, providing us with the full context and our teams proposing creative solutions based on industry knowledge and the right technologies and systems.

Regardless of how well we think we know our clients’ needs or because we have worked in the industry for years, nothing beats “voice of the customer”. At TDX Group, we use voice of the customer ourselves and recent developments to our TIX (The Insolvency Exchange) platform are based on feedback from clients and this has delivered improved functionality for all TIX users.

The simplest way to understand what a customer needs is by asking the right questions. This isn’t necessarily: What do you want? It can be: What is the problem you are trying to solve? How are going to use the product? Who is the end user? What are the impacts of rollout and implementation likely to be?

The key then is not just taking the customers word for it. Findings should be backed up with data so that a real benefits case can be created, with tangible metrics that can be used as measures of success, whether that’s cost saving, time saving, reduced complaint levels or improved liquidation rates.

The customer should also be taken on the product development journey by delivering the product or functionality in prioritised increments so that releases are de-risked, benefits are delivered faster and the customer can provide a continuous feedback loop.

It’s this collaboration and being really clear on what problems the product will solve which will really drive innovation and enable organisations to meet the right goals. When a customer asks what a product can do, it is the value proposition that they care about not the product features, and if we are innovating the right product for our customers’ needs we should be able to demonstrate that value proposition in an instant.

Shivani Mistry is Head of Platform Management at TDX Group

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