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Product Management Rule #16: Get Out of the Office

Product Management Rule #16 from the best-selling book, 42 Rules of Product Management, was written by Paula Gray, Applied Cultural Anthropologist, AIPMM

Markets do not buy products,

people do;

businesses do not buy products,

people (several, or a group, but always people) do.

It is our natural tendency to overestimate the importance that our product holds within the lives of our customers. Spend some time to see firsthand where your product fits into the holistic picture of a customer’s life.

The Whole Picture

A good product manager can access loads of data. You can review market research demographics, sales numbers, and product specs to name a few, and all of these are valuable. But remember, the product, company, processes, and ultimate purpose of your job all exist to sell customers products they want to buy. That perspective puts customers in charge and there is no better way to learn about customers than by observing their behavior in their own natural environment. Focus groups, interviews, and surveys are valuable, but they only offer part of the picture. You need to go to where the customers are, and that involves getting out of your cubicle or office.

The Customer as a Source of Insight

In generations past, organizations held a “producer’s view of the world,” where customers and the marketplace were viewed as part of the system outside the business, a destination that products and services were sent outward to. Many times, organizations created products first and then looked for customers afterward, dictating what the customer would have to accept. Now, due to increased competition, the customer is gaining their rightful place in the process. The customer is viewed as a valuable source of innovation to draw from. This more enlightened view of the value of the customer, and the need for exchanges with them, has transformed the way consumer behavior is studied, analyzed and acted upon.

Outdated is the practice of simply describing the customers’ purchase decision such as who buys what, where, and what factors influence the decision. Most product managers and marketers now recognize that statistical analysis of survey data related to consumer demographics makes their customer a number on a spreadsheet, or a point on a graph, and leaves them far short of enough valuable data. Now, firms are interested in “gaining a holistic understanding of consumers’ lives in context, and finding out what this may teach them about new opportunities to create or improve products, or how to make new sales.”

It is important to recognize that a market is a grouping of people who share some similar human behaviors such as particular buying or usage patterns. Assessing or defining the market requires an understanding of human behavior. Markets do not buy products, people do; businesses do not buy products, people (several, or a group, but always people) do. Go beyond “personas,” which are fictional characters, and connect with “persons” who are living, breathing customers.

So how do you do that?

Grab Your Keys and Head for the Door

There is no other way than to simply go spend time with customers. If you sell to consumers, go where people shop or where they “hang out.” Watch, listen, and look for patterns. What are their topics of conversation, what are they seeing from their perspective, how are they behaving, how long does it take them to select a product?

If you sell to businesses, volunteer to go on customer visits or sales calls and be an astute listener and observer. What is hanging on the wall of your customer’s office? What key words does your customer repeat? How is the office arranged?

These observations can yield insights into the purchase decision process, the “ranking” of important issues, and even what your product symbolizes for your customer. Incredibly valuable information not revealed in the charts, graphs and spreadsheets sitting on your desk back in the office.

Product Management Rule #16 from the best-selling book, 42 Rules of Product Management

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