Do Product Managers Understand What They’re Hearing?

As Product Managers, we talk (rightfully so) about the importance of listening to the market.

That’s why we’re visiting with customers, talking with them on Twitter, conducting surveys, blogging, etc.

But, do we really understand what we’re hearing?

Doc Savage Told Me A Story Once

At a training seminar last week, the instructor (literally named “Doctor Savage” — and, yes, he was a little on the bronze side, thanks for asking) put the following sentence on the projector and asked us what it meant:

Woman without her man is nothing

Some people read it as, “Woman: Without her, man is nothing.”

Others read it as, “Woman, without her man, is nothing”. Those people were labeled mysoginists, and booted from the class.

The point of this “Eats, Shoots & Leaves” exercise was, of course, to get us thinking about communication and how our own biases can get in the way of hearing what others are saying.

“It’s Not You, It’s Me”

How do you blast through your own biases and really listen to the market?

Scott Sehlhorst has a fairly detailed list of active listening tips — if you haven’t read them yet, go check them out; they’re important — and the comments delve into some of the drawbacks to certain techniques while offering alternatives.

However, setting up your listening posts, and really listening to people, only gets you 2/3 of the way to effectively hearing what they’re saying.

Context Is King

The last leg of the listening trifecta is the good kind of discrimination, the kind that leads to comprehension — critically evaluating the sources and what they’re saying.

As Tom Grant points out in “When Communities Smother Your Product“:

Over time, a subset of customers emerge who participate regularly in user group meetings, discussion forums, the comments sections of blogs, groups in social media channels, and other channels of face-to-face and electronic communication. Because vendors are interested in feedback, this group of notables get increasing attention from product managers, product marketers, and the like. Unless the company takes deliberate steps to mitigate the Iron Law of Oligarchy, a small and often unrepresentative sample of users will wield disproportionate influence over the vendor’s thinking about products and services.

We spend so much time talking about listening, and doing it well, that sometimes we take away the wrong lessons, or an incomplete lesson.

Is it important to listen to customers? Absolutely; of course.

Just make sure you put their feedback into context — that you don’t become so attendant to the loudest subset of your customers that you cut yourself off from other customers. The ones without megaphones, who would value what you’re offering, too.

Sound good?

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1 thought on “Do Product Managers Understand What They’re Hearing?”

  1. Chris,

    You are spot on. You have to make sure you take all the feedback you are hearing and apply it in the correct context before you make judgments calls.

    Besides the points you listed, I would also add that is important to hear what your customers are thinking but not saying. They also may tell you that some feature is important but in reality, it isn’t.

    Being able to observe your customers in their natural settings using your product is a great way to develop insights and place what you are hearing into context. It doesn’t have to be a full ethnographic research effort, just watching as they use your product can be a good way to start.

    Thanks for the post,

    Josh
    .-= Josh Duncan´s last blog ..Favorite Product Management Posts Jannuary 2010 =-.

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