I've been a stubborn mule for as long as I can remember.
As I've learned to build software over the past 13 years— starting with front-end development in 2007 and transitioning to full-stack in 2013—my siren song has always been that "customers don't know what they want."
Funny enough, a lot of technical people think this way.
And, honestly, that's fair. When you can build anything, the cost of changing your course is relatively cheap.
But at some point, you do need to factor in outside opinions.
And when you do, it can be a bit intimidating. "Talk to customers" is easy advice to parrot, but what exactly does that mean?
This week, I did my first customer call for Command. What I learned is that it's not about talking...it's about listening.
I realized that, while customers may not know what they want in terms of explicit features, they do know what they want in respect to their business and their life.
In this post, I'm going to share three phrases to listen out for which signal a customer desire that you can respond to with your product.
Right now I...
One of the best words to hear as a product maker is "and."
When you hear this word, it means that extra steps are being taken that may not need to be. There's some inefficiency that needs to be solved.
"Right now I use MailChimp, and Intercom, and Baremetrics, and Twilio..."
My ears perked up. Hmm, that's a lot of stuff. I listened closer, asking questions about how those tools were used and why.
After a bit of back-and-forth, wouldn't you know it, lying in the answer were a set of features.
But, this is the important part: the customer didn't tell me what those features were. He didn't say "Ryan, I want you to build these things."
No, what he said was "here is what I'm doing right now, here's what that costs me, and here's what I'd like to be able to do."
By listening I quickly realized in my head "oh, you don't have to do all of that, you can just..."
Boom. You just figured out what to build.
I want to understand...
Another good set of words to watch out for is "I want to understand." This is usually delivered as "I want to understand how I..." or "I want to understand why X causes X."
Admittedly, these requests are a bit more abstract. But, if you can listen, there's a ton of value here if you're willing to put in some mental sweat and think up a solution.
You see, "I want to understand" is another way of saying "I know I need to know this thing, but I can't get to it right now." That limitation could be for a a number of reasons:
- No existing solutions.
- Existing solutions that require too much time and skill to set up.
- Existing solutions that are clunky and require more effort than their price justifies to use.
A little secret I learned: a customer may already be paying for one of the sub-optimal solutions, but don't let that scare you away!
Remember: everybody likes to save time and money. If you can help a customer to understand something faster and for less money, you may have a killer feature on your hands.
How do I...
This one is arguably the easiest. When you're talking to customers and they ask "how do I do ___ with your product," there are only two answers:
- Let me show you.
- It can't do that yet.
If your product already does that thing, great. If not, though, there is a ton of potential.
Talking about Command's current set of features, the customer asked "how do I get my existing customers into Command?"
I answered that, as of right now, the methods are limited. You can use the form in the app or you can use the API. That's it.
But instead of stopping there, I asked "what would make it easiest for you" and listened closely.
He explained that being able to import all of the data he had on existing platforms would be a huge timesaver.
With very little effort, he told me exactly what to build. All I had to do was ask "what platforms do you need data from" and let him speak. That's it.
Listen close and then listen closer
Talking to customers may sound scary, but just think of it as having a conversation with a friend who needs someone to listen.
Instead of thinking about what you'll say next, really dial into what's troubling them. Give a damn about their business and their success.
Take notes as you go, writing down any interesting tidbit that sounds like a problem you could solve. Make a point to ask "why" more than you ask "what."
Understand that everything your customer wants and needs you to build is right there if you listen.