As product managers, we spend a lot of our time diving into data, researching our respective areas, and talking to our customers. We learn about the problems they face, the opportunities to potentially resolve those solutions, and how they use and engage with capabilities and features. But are we missing something?

I believe we are missing the understanding of the customers’ wider business. We rarely, if ever, explore beyond the bounds of our product teams or spend time physically in our customers’ businesses.

In my experience, spending time physically with your customer, shadowing them, and performing day-to-day tasks as they do creates some powerful benefits that you do not get in your normal product work.

In this post, I’ll highlight why you should spend more onsite time with your customers and how to build best practices, relationships, and empathy that will drive value for your business and ultimately your customers.

Relationship building

We all build relationships with our customers over time. I have been emailing, calling, and Zooming clients for many years. However, meeting them and their team in person brings that relationship to a whole new level.

The in-person interaction coupled with you working alongside them builds a level of trust that makes them comfortable giving fair and honest feedback. People from the wider team often feel comfortable contacting you with feedback as well, expanding your reach beyond the business owner or manager.

There is also a sense of social credit built up after the visit from having you work in the business. I find this creates an increased willingness to test new features as payback for the work you did with them.

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Developing understanding

As product managers, we can sometimes be deep among the weeds of our product area and it is difficult to step back and see the wider picture. By working in a customer’s business, I quickly saw that even software like Phorest that manages a large amount of a salon’s business is just a tiny part of the day-to-day life of our salons.

The experience helped to put into perspective some things we commonly struggle with as product managers:

  1. Driving usage: None of the users were wandering around the product. They were completing one task and then moving on to the next. They have built up muscle memory and defined processes that are unlikely to change.
  2. Building awareness: Many of our customers will ask for features that we already have. We communicate often about new features; yet only by working with them in the business do you see how many emails and calls are coming in and how prompts that appear in the product are routinely dismissed (often with a flash of irritation) as they rush to complete the task they are working on.
  3. Engagement with product calls: Working behind a desk, it’s hard to understand why customers who have booked a call with you don’t turn up. In the middle of the madness that is a working business, it’s crystal clear that anything and everything can happen that throws off their entire day.

Seeing customers in their natural environment also surfaces seemingly minor bugs and UI/UX issues in a whole new light. For example, on a recent salon visit, we noticed that the salon manager kept opening the appointment detail view.

She was expecting to be able to process the transaction from there, and we had given her no way to do it. It took us just a couple of hours to solve this problem and greatly improve the flow.

This sort of information is almost impossible to glean from client calls and application trackers like Hotjar.

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3. Customer advocacy

Customer advocacy is a key part of developing products that customers love. Working in their business gives you a much greater understanding of the ebb and flow, as well as building your knowledge of industry terminology and expectations.

We often hear about leading teams of missionaries not mercenaries, so actively encourage your engineers and designers to get involved as well. Spreading customer advocacy across your team will mean surfacing feedback earlier and ultimately building better products for your customers.

Start by taking just one day of your year and spend it working in your client's business. If you’re nervous, team up with an experienced colleague. If that is not possible, then be honest with the customer and let them know how you’re feeling. In my experience, people appreciate honesty and will take care to ensure you’re okay when you visit.

Go in with no expectation other than to be a part of their team for the day. Experience life as a customer and see what benefits your team and you receive.

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