February 28

Starting with Customers’ Problems

The following insights were gleaned from a presentation at INDUSTRY given by Ash Maurya of LEANSTACK @ashmaurya. Download Product Management TACTICS eBook for more.

Most products fail, simply because we build something nobody wants. This begs the obvious question: Why does this happen and how do you build what customers actually want? Traditional approaches like surveys, focus groups, and even asking customers don’t work because customers themselves often don’t know what they want.

The challenge today isn’t just how to build products, but understanding what defines a better product. The Build, Measure, Learn loop popularized by Eric Ries and his book, The Lean Startup, is an idea validator. It can be used to learn whether an idea is good, better, or bad. But if the idea isn’t there in the first place, customers will simply leave.

So it begs the question: Where do good ideas come from?

To find good ideas, we product people shouldn’t simply start with just idea discovery, but problem discovery as well. Too often, we rush to build the solution and deliver it without feedback, which doesn’t get us anywhere. Starting with a solution is like starting with a key but without a door. We don’t necessarily know what problems we’re going after. Instead, focusing on problems allows us to ultimately get to better ideas, and better solutions.

Of course, focusing on problems does lead to other challenges. Actually, a couple of challenges:

First, Innovator’s bias is hard to shut off . We fall in love with our own ideas. Often times, instead of asking what problems can we solve for a customer, we ask what problems can we solve for our customers with our own product.

Also, asking customers about their problems doesn’t work. We often only get surface problems, and that’s because customers don’t understand the deeper issue. Customers are also solution-biased. They tend to try to “help” you answer the question by leading you right to features that they wish they had (or they think they wish they had). But feature requests are often solutions disguised as problems.

So, what’s a better way? Try a backdoor approach. What are people trying to get done or wishing that they could achieve? Using another analogy (from Theadore Levitt), most people don’t really want a quarter-inch drill bit. They want a quarter-inch hole. It may be hard, but don’t think about the tool. Think about what the tool can do for you — the finished outcome that the tool helps you achieve.

Of course, customers can be tricky in how they act…

Customers stay at rest until something changes in their world. For instance, if your group of friends gathers for dinner one evening and your friends start discussing new cars they recently purchased, your car, which may be perfectly fine, may start to feel old. This is a triggering event. Remember, for every motivation for the desired outcome, there is a resistance to change. Conversion occurs when the motivation for change is greater than resistance to change. These types of triggering events can cause conversion.

On competition:

Many startups, in particular, think their company and new offering has no competition because of how they define their offering. For instance, a brand new productivity tool might not necessarily seem like it has competition because of the unique features it o ers. Yet, even if those features truly are novel, it certainly has competition. Microsoft Excel, for instance, might be its biggest competition yet. Remember that your product isn’t just competing with other products, but other ways of solving the problem that you’re trying to solve.

People choose a product when the push and pull is greater than friction. People use multiple products simultaneously, too. The customer forces of each product being used are all working against them. If you can learn these forces, you can apply them to acquire customers, retain them longer, or use customers to get referrals. You may even be able to get customers to switch. How? Forget personas. Look for the smallest number of distinguishing characteristics that cause people to buy from you. A triggering event is one of these characteristics. Learn to identify these, and you can be in a better position than competitors. For example, when is the best time to run an ad for a mattress that alleviates back pain? Early morning or at bedtime? Or even better, at 2:00 AM when your customer can’t sleep and is watching TV or is online looking around.

Customer retention is all about preventing customer switch. Customer switch can be prevented by removing the friction from your product. The easier your products are to use, the more perceived value your customers will assign to it. But aside from removing friction, you can also build habits into products. If using your product becomes a part of their day-to-day, a price decrease from a competitor or novelty of a new alternative will seem frivolous to your customers. Switching won’t seem like an alternative to them, because they have to live with your product every day.

Of course, if a customer does switch — be sure to ask them why and where they’re going. It’s important to learn from their leaving. Is the switch that they’re making because you and your product did a poor job? Or, is the job simply done? These are two very different reasons.

Paul McAvinchey

About the author

For over 20 years, Paul has been building and collaborating on digital products with fast-growing startups and global brands, including AOL and WMS Gaming. Currently, he's a co-founder of Product Collective, a worldwide community of product people. Members collaborate on in the exclusive Member Hub, meet at INDUSTRY: The Product Conference, listen to Rocketship.fm, learn at Product Interviews and get a weekly newsletters that includes best practices in product management. In recent years he led business development at DXY, a leading product design firm in the Midwest, and product innovation at MedCity Media, a publishing startup acquired by Breaking Media in 2015.


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