Five ways to listen to customers instead of goin’ fishin’

Lots of small business bloggers tell you to listen to the customer and build accordingly. But some people take it too far.

I recently had an experience with just such a company. They had finished their product demo and I was wrapping with a few standard questions.

Me: What’s on your roadmap?
CTO: We’re going to listen to what you need.

Notice how it evades the question, like a politician. He might as well have said, “The future is whatever you think it should be.” Perhaps he’s trying to demonstrate receptiveness to feature requests, but it’s a non-answer.

Follow-up questions failed to uncover a roadmap. Maybe because they don’t have enough customers to know where to go? The next snippet provides more evidence for this theory:

Me: Do you have any questions for us?
CTO: Yes. What is your biggest business problem that you would like someone to solve?

Fishing for ideas? Are you asking me to define your next product for you?

This isn’t “listening to customers,” this is a rudderless ship. Having clear goals and confidence is compatible with customer-guided development. What you should be doing is active listening:

  1. When a suggestion appears, notice and write it down. Restate it in your own words and repeat it back to ensure you understood correctly.
  2. Dig into feature requests until you find the root pain point. This means back-and-forth communication so do this on the phone or in person, not email. Often there are ten ways to address a problem and you have other customers and a product architecture to consider.
  3. Ask them to order their suggestions by importance. Often a list of twenty suggestions yields only two deal-breakers. No priority levels are allowed, just an ordering; otherwise you end up with seven “Priority 1″ line items.
  4. If you can’t (or won’t!) implement something, admit it. Explain why so the customer understands you’re being pragmatic and forthright, not dismissive.
  5. Collect feedback proactively. Most people won’t send an email to support with a feature request; they’ve been conditioned by most companies that such things go unnoticed. One way we’ve started doing this recently (with much success) is through a Uservoice page.

Notice in all cases you’re simultaneously engaging the customer and honing the suggestions. Engaging means the customer feels like you’re genuinely listening and giving thoughtful consideration. Honing means you’ll leave with concrete things to consider.

Even admitting something is impossible is constructive because then when you do accept a suggestion they know you mean to implement it. You’re displaying honesty and setting up reasonable expectations. People know all twenty of their ideas can’t be done; they’ll appreciate honest rejection.

Companies that listen are both rare and beloved. Listen, don’t fish.

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