Aligning With Customers: 3 Pitfalls to Avoid

Why visit customers?  For product planners, a common reason is to gather product requirements.   Yet, in customer meetings, I’ve witnessed colleagues fail to learn what customers need or want. Indeed, I’ve seen co-workers write down ‘requirements’ that were dead wrong.  Why?  Because they fell victim to three common uncovering mistakes.

  • Getting stuck in today
  • Asking yes/no questions
  • Failing to discover ‘why?’

Years ago, my colleagues and I nearly walked away from a customer alignment meeting thinking the customer required a costly feature, when in reality he did not.  We had asked one seemingly simple question… and that question suffered from all three pitfalls.  Here is the story.

Note: details have been changed to avoid disclosing proprietary information,  names have been changed to protect the guilty, and the technology called ‘Ubit’ is totally fictional.

Bob, a system architect from a mid-size company, had just presented his roadmap. My co-worker began sharing ours.  Our intention was to validate plans for the next products and to gather further inputs to inform outstanding decisions, including whether to remove a legacy technology called ‘Ubit’.

Bob hadn’t expressed a need for Ubit in his roadmap. Rather than assuming Ubit to be a ‘don’t care’, someone from my team rightly asked Bob about it.  They just asked it in the wrong way: “Do you need Ubit?”  Bob sat up straight and replied, “definitely!”  Bob’s response surprised us. My colleagues took a defensive posture.  They immediately began exploring whether other solutions would be acceptable.  By brainstorming alternatives, they indicated a reluctance to support Ubit. Bob grew angry. The meeting took a bad turn.

What happened?  We had asked, “Do you need Ubit?”  A deceptively simple sentence, this question exemplifies what not to ask.  Three specific things are wrong with these four little words.

Pitfall #1. Stuck in today.  When a customer hears, “Do you need Ubit?”, he implicitly thinks in terms of today and answers in consideration of his current product.  The questioning team, however, is thinking about the future.  Each person is in a different time-frame.  My colleagues are trying to understand what Bob needs in the future just as Bob describes what he needs now.  The uncovering team believed Bob had a strong requirement for Ubit in the future, but his requirement was for now.

  • Remedy: Ask about the future. Simply be clear about the time-frame.  A better question would have been, “Will you need Ubit in two to three years?”  This is better, in that it clearly asks Bob to think about his system out in time.  However, it is still sub-optimal, because it suffers from the second pitfall.

Pitfall #2. Asking yes/no questions. Bob answered the Ubit question in one word.  He didn’t explain why he needed Ubit or in what configuration. Why should he have explained further?  He was asked a ‘yes/no’ question after all.   The problems with yes/no questions are many.  For one they presume there are only two possible answers,  Secondly, they fail to encourage an explanation. Third, yes/no questions fail to get at ‘why’.

  • Remedy: Ask open-ended questions. If your question starts with ‘Do’ or ‘Will’, you are probably starting a yes-/no question.  Instead, start your questions with ‘What’, ‘Which’ and ‘Why’.

Pitfall #3. Failing to ask ‘why’.  Yes/no questions are unskillful, but can be resolved by simply asking ‘why’.  However, in our example, the team didn’t try to understand why Bob needed Ubit.  Instead, they jumped into brainstorming alternative solutions, for example whether external Ubit devices would be acceptable.  They tried to come up with solutions rather than doubling down on discovering why Bob needed Ubit.

  • Remedy: Ask what the customer is trying to achieve and what their goals are. Ask future-focused open-ended questions.

After realizing what had gone wrong, I interrupted the bickering and asked, “Bob, what capabilities will you gain in your next generation product with Ubit?”  Bob quickly replied, “Oh it just allows us to connect to a legacy processor.  We use that processor for board management and system control.”

I then asked, “What design goals are driving use of that particular processor on your next project?”  Bob thought for a moment.  “Actually, we have to drop that processor.  We just received an end-of-life notice from the manufacturer and now we need to start looking at alternatives.”   He then volunteered, “You know, for our next project, I don’t think we need Ubit at all.”

WHAT?!@#$%?

We recorded Bob’s comments and moved on.  At the end of the meeting, we brainstormed ways Bob could replace that legacy processor with one of our products at low cost and low effort.

By talking in different time-frames, asking yes/ no questions and failing to uncover the ‘why’, our uncovering team nearly walked away from an alignment meeting with the wrong view of Bob’s requirements.   Luckily, we were able to ask two open-ended, future-focused and customer-centered questions that got us to the right answer, and to closer alignment with Bob.

Pitfall antidotes:

  • Explicitly ask about the future.
  • Ask open ended questions.
  • Ask follow up questions that help you genuinely understand what the customer is trying to achieve.

Examples:

  • “What capabilities will you gain in your next generation product by implementing Ubit?” (open ended, future focused)
  • “What design goals are driving use of that particular processor on your next project?” (asking for why)

It all seems so simple, right?  Yet, when we are absorbed in a conversation with a customer, it is easy to slip into bad habits.  Pro-tip: Spend a few minutes before the meeting and write down five open-ended, future-focused questions that get at what the customer is trying to achieve.  Formulate the questions before the meeting, and you’ll increase the likelihood of aligning skillfully.

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