How Many Customer Interviews?

Question BoxContributed by Bob Levy

Product strategy must be led by rich marketplace insight, so who’s the real leader and in which contexts?  How do we know when a product manager validly knows the market needs and has earned the right to assert requirements, the credibility to be followed, and to expect air cover from management?

Questions like this motivated me to co-found the BPMA as President in 2001, a group where we learn from each others’ experiences what works best.

Fortunately, there is a wealth of research to answer interesting questions like this.  One of my favorite works is the original “The Voice of the Customer” by Griffin and Hauser, dating back to 1993.  Overlaying my experience of the past couple decades specific to software, I require any product manager I supervise to conduct a minimum of 15 one-on-one, open-ended needs-probe interviews per segment, at least by phone.  Since my goal as a manager of product managers is to develop strategic leaders, this requirement has been a valuable part of the performance management framework that I apply.

Teams should recruit both customers and prospects, and prospects within anticipated or desired market segments to discover whitespace opportunity.  Ensure representation of both buyer and user personas in each segment.  Products are generally developed for users but marketed for buyers; use your resources accordingly.

“But where do I find people to interview?”

Lists are remarkably inexpensive, and once you’ve delivered value for new segments, you’ll have begun relationships your sales team can leverage.  I’ve often gotten adequate results using Dun & Bradstreet NetProspex, but each industry has specialty lists and list brokers.  Your library may subscribe to the Standard Rate and Data Service (SRDS), an invaluable directory of such lists. 

“How do I reach them?”

This is misperceived as especially trying for finding the elusive segments with whom sales has not yet reached.  I’ve had great success using telesales teams and outside contractors for getting these scheduled.  I’ve even cold called tough segments directly.  Sales experts say it takes 13 attempts, on average, to reach someone at their desk; it’s been my experience 7-9am weekdays and Friday afternoons is the best time of day for this activity.  I’ve found emails seeking to schedule biases the sample to those who are unusually proactive responding.  That’s why I counsel persistence, making the calls or delegating to someone who will and get meetings scheduled for you.

“But why will they talk with me?”

Remember to open that you’re not trying to sell anything, you’re simply conducting research and would be happy to share an anonymized report of your findings.  People generally value insight on how they stand relative to their peers in the industry.  Sometimes it helps to be making a charitable contribution in recognition of their time.  I’ve never paid research subjects directly, and do not plan to start as I feel compensation biases the feedback I’ll receive.

I’m passionate about the strategic nature of product management driving success.  Failure to evangelize this approach often leads to a role where the product manager ends up performing only sales engineering (demo), customer support, project management (vs. initiating), developer and other “jack-of-all-trades” tasks vs. delivering the strategic value possible by those with a rare blend of business and technical skill who have empathy to listen to the marketplace. 

In future posts, I’ll elaborate each of these topics and best practices for conducting the interviews.  Please comment below, I’ll treat this blog as I would any product; lots of feedback will absolutely influence the overall roadmap.

Image from Flickr Commons


Bob Levy has over two decades of executive, PLM, product, marketing and R&D experience with firms including IBM, Mathworks, Hancock Software, Harte Hanks & Rational Software.  He holds advisory and board roles with several technology ventures.  As Founding President Emeritus of the Boston Product Management Association, Bob collaborated with an incredibly talented team of co-founders in 2001 incubating the group, and is grateful for the hard work of volunteers, busy professionals like yourself, who compound the BPMA’s success and make it your own.

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