Product management is a relatively new field where people gather business knowledge to direct development of new products. These are not traditional “people managers” in the sense of direct reporting authority, yet product managers coordinate with teams of people on a regular basis. Likewise, product managers don’t really manage the product in a technical sense either. Technical product management might involve manipulating functions and features to make it work properly.
Instead, product managers and new product development (NPD) professionals integrate the customer perspective with business goals. By understanding market needs, product managers prioritize product releases to gain the most value for the firm. Of course, this entails knowing what customers want and anticipating their future needs.
Where to Find Your Customers
Where do you interact with your customers? Today, a lot of companies rely on social media to garner product and customer feedback. Social media is generally unfiltered – meaning you hear directly from your customers. Unfortunately, while social media might be unfiltered, it is often quite biased. Many people only post super-spectacular experiences with products while many more are prone to complain. The happy majority in the middle has no incentive to post to social media. After all, good enough is good enough.
Perhaps you find your customer in groups at trade shows or technical conferences. Wholesale buyers are often perusing new products and trends at conventions and specialty events. This is a great opportunity for your NPD teams to interact directly, and in-person, with existing and potential customers.
I advise taking your entire core NPD team to a trade show to learn about trends and needs. Engineering and supply chain team members can better design products when they interface directly with customers. Marketing and sales will maintain that connection throughout the development project.
Next, you can interact with customers in focus groups and lead user panels. We’ve discussed focus groups and market research previously (learn more in Chapter 2 of The Innovation ANSWER Book). You can use focus groups in an online or face-to-face forum to test concepts or new product prototypes. The goal is to learn from the conversations and collaboration among focus group participants.
Lead user panels are similar to focus groups in generating collaborative conversations, and to understand challenges and product usage. However, lead user panels consist of known, existing customers. You will want to mix a few veterans with new customers to gather interesting customer insights. Keep the membership of a lead user panel consistent for 12 to 18 months to establish trust and maintain confidentiality among your customers.
In-house customer interface is typically called “alpha testing”. (Read more about alpha, beta, and gamma testing in Chapter 2 of The Innovation ANSWER Book.) Many hardware products and outputs of software products are used by your own staff and employees. By holding regular product fairs in which employees sample new products and share their feedback, NPD teams can gain additional insights. If you are in a consumer goods arena (such as food and beverage, household cleaning, or appliances) be sure to collect data from the family and friends of your staff as they participate in conversations about new product needs and market trends.
Interacting With Customers
In a recent posts about teams in NPD (read more here and here), we noted that customer interface is crucial to new product success. Product managers cannot do their job sitting behind a computer monitor or working alone from their basement home office. Product development professionals must interact frequently with real customers to understand market needs, competition, and emerging trends.
In Lean NPD (an adaptation of Quality Management), “going to the gemba” is an important phrase. It means “go to the actual place”. To be successful in NPD, product managers and product designers must go to meet the customer at the customer’s place.
To learn more about gathering customer insights, you’ll be interested in reading Chapter 2 of The Innovation ANSWER Bookand studying Chapter 3 of The Innovation QUESTION Book (now available in Spanish).
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