A few weeks ago, I was reading through several thousand voice-of-the-customer (VoC) comments we’d gathered for a client1 when I was stopped in my tracks by a quote.  The customer told us that while he preferred a competitor’s product, he’d purchased our client’s product instead because he preferred the experience he’d had with our client’s sales representative.  Wow!  It may be common wisdom that the best product doesn’t always win, but there’s nothing like seeing the proof straight from a customer’s mouth.

The comment reminded me of a valuable lesson I learned as a B2B product manager: customers aren’t buying your product, they’re paying you to satisfy their needs2.

There are a couple of practical implications of this lesson.  First, you must find out what customers need before opening your product design toolkit.  Once you do this, especially in B2B markets, you realize the second implication, which is that your “product” likely won’t satisfy all of your customers’ needs… it must be wrapped in excellent marketing, sales, training, support, and service.  You must design customer experiences, not just products.

So, if you are a customer experience manager or responsible for part of the customer experience, which includes marketing, sales, service (even accounts receivable!), you play a vital role in enabling the success of your company’s products.  Learning how to think like a product manager can help you do that.

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The six questions below are key questions product managers ask themselves when conceiving of and designing new products, but they are equally useful when designing customer experiences.  Do you know the answers to them?

1.       Who are my customers and prospects and what motivates them? 

If you understand your customers’ business, their goals and the overall direction in which they’re trying to head, you will be better equipped to anticipate their needs.  It will also improve your awareness of how your product or service fits into the bigger picture of your customers’ business.  If you get this part right, prospects and customers will find themselves thinking about you, “they really get it; they know my business.”

2.       What are they telling me they need… 

Gathering the voice of the customer and prospective customers through interviews, surveys, and observation is an essential step in designing effective customer experiences.  This now includes capturing what your customers are saying online and on social media.  While the value of gathering VoC is widely acknowledged, we often discover B2B companies do not yet have a program in place to do it.

3.       …and what do they actually want?

Being able to answer this question helps separate great customer focused companies from good ones, and can lead to breakthrough innovations.  A simple tip is to ask “why?” when your customers tell you what they need.  If your customers tell you they’d like quicker turnarounds from your service shop, you may discover that their underlying need is to minimize equipment down time and the time and hassle of taking it in for service.  In fact, a number of smart B2B companies have analyzed this specific need and satisfied it not via speedier work in their shops (though this is important), but by establishing or strengthening their field service capabilities, which completely eliminates the issue of requiring customers to take time to bring their equipment into the shop.

4.       What problem(s) will I solve for them?

Due to limited resources, you can’t solve every problem or satisfy every desire of your customers.  So, you must select a subset of needs to satisfy.  A good place to begin this decision process is to determine which problems are most critical and valuable to the customer.  This will help you avoid falling into a trap laid by the path of least resistance, which would be to immediately start matching customer needs against what you think you can most readily solve using your existing capabilities.  If you focus only on the easy wins, you may miss out on more profitable opportunities.

5.       How will I solve them…

Did you notice that it took four questions before beginning work on designing the customer experience itself?  The payoff of this upfront investment of time and effort in understanding what customers want, is that you’ll greatly improve your odds of designing the right customer experiences.  When you begin the design phase, you can further improve your odds of success by using prototyping.  Just as product designers use hardware and software prototypes to test the effectiveness of a design, consider piloting and refining new customer experiences in specific geographic locations or within specific customer segments, before rolling them out more broadly.  Don’t just test for “does this function as designed,” also test for “how well does this meet the need it was intended to satisfy.”

6.       …better than anyone else?

As you gather customer feedback and determine underlying needs, you should measure how well your competitors and your current customer experience satisfies those needs.  This will help you understand your competitive position in the context of how well you meet specific customer needs, as opposed to the common urge to look first at the competition and say “we should be doing that!” As a result, you’ll make higher quality, data driven decisions around how you will differentiate your customer experience and gain a competitive edge in the market.

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So, how did you fare?  How would you rate your company’s ability to identify your customers’ most important needs and satisfy them in a differentiated manner?  Whether you have mastered the answers to these questions or not, I hope you found them useful.  And, in the spirit of this blog entry, I’d value your feedback.  Please let me know what you thought of today’s post, what other blog topics you’d be interested in seeing, and whether you’d like more details on applying design thinking to the B2B customer experience (this post really just skimmed the surface).  The Daniel Group may produce a complimentary white paper given sufficient interest.   To do so, use our comments section below, or send me an email at [email protected]

Doug

1.                  While text mining tools are invaluable in detecting signals and themes not captured by quantitative elements of a customer interview, there is no substitute for also listening to or reading the comments from interviews we perform to pick up on the nuances and specific details of the feedback.

2.                  Paraphrase of various related Peter Drucker quotes. 

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