During a discussion with a UX designer and a development manager at a recent Product Management Consortium meeting here in Seattle, one of the topics that came up involved some of the things that Product Managers do or say that they find annoying, ridiculous, or just upsetting. And, interestingly enough, one of those was the insistence that Product Managers are the “voice of the customer.”
Initially, this shocked me a little bit, as one of the things that nearly every PM training program, certification program, and general rah-rah pow-wow reinforces in us is that we need to be the “voice of the customer” in everything that we do. Obviously, the fact that something so heavily ingrained in our profession causing such aggravation with the very people we rely on to express that voice is something worth digging into.
After some further discussion, the truth came out — it wasn’t just the fact that Product Managers claim to be the “voice of the customer” that bothered them. Rather, it was Product Managers who make such a claim with no basis for that assertion — no customer contact, no objective data, no market research. Those were the people who frustrated the UX and Development teams, because they had absolutely no more exposure or experience with the user upon which to base that “voice” than did the designers or developers themselves.
Thus, we came to the conclusion that a Product Manager has a role as the “voice of the customer” if they’ve actually heard that voice — by talking with customers, by engaging actively with the market, by performing tests and studies and collecting hard data. In short, being the “voice of the customer” is something you earn, not something you’re gifted with by mere virtue of your job title. You can’t be the “voice of the customer” if you never step outside the four walls of your office.
You can’t be the “voice of the customer” if you never step outside the four walls of your office.
There are a lot of things that we’re expected to do as Product Managers — and all too often, those things wind up removing us from the exposure to customers and prospects that’s necessary to performing those functions at the top of our game. In some ways, it’s a bit of a Catch-22 — you have to do your daily job which means you can’t always be in front of customers, but you have to be in front of customers on a daily basis to ensure that you’re at the top of your game in your daily duties.
So what are some of the things that we can do as Product Managers to ensure that we’re actually playing the role of the “voice of the customer”?
- Once a month, go on a sales visit or a client account update to an actual client site; you don’t have to speak, you’re just there to observe and make some connections.
- Every week, meet with the customer support team leadership, and find out what’s the top concern that they’re hearing from customers.
- Monitor any online forums or websites where people are talking about your product and your company — again, you don’t have to engage, but you do have to ensure that you’re gathering data.
- Never neglect an industry event such as a trade show — there’s simply no reason whatsoever that the Product team shouldn’t have a representative on the floor when there are customers, competitors, and prospects freely roaming the venue.
- Optimize the contacts that you do have to ensure that your ideas, thoughts, designs, and problem statements are accurate and validated. A quick phone call with an actual user or customer gives you some hard data to back any assertions you make later on.
- Ensure that you are testing and validating designs and problem statements with actual users, or at worst user-proxies (such as internal support teams).
In short, as a Product Manager, one of the most essential components of our job is ensuring not only that we claim to be the “voice of the customer” in strategy, design, and planning meetings, but that we are the “voice of the customer;” and that title only comes with hard work and actual contact with the outside world.