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Can product managers be too busy to talk to their customers?

by Bob Dorf
March 9, 2017

Whether managing the hottest new tech-laden gizmo or a decades-old industrial product, I can’t imagine any product manager willingly coming up short on customer feedback. In my role as a leading customer advocate, I can’t imagine anything more important!

Yet the latest annual survey of some 150 product managers finds that only 3.5 out of ten managers feel they spend enough time interacting with people who make or break their careers – customers! In fact, the product managers surveyed in Alpha’s survey say they spend nearly twice as much time talking and politicking with internal stakeholders–you know, folks who get free product from the sample closet!

Whether the product or features actually change or not, a variety of customer variables change so frequently that a steady drumbeat of high-quality customer feedback is a true lifeline for product managers – a steady stream of insights on “stealth” indicators that may quietly erode next quarter’s numbers. To name just a few:

A changing competitive set is perhaps most dangerous of all. Are customers looking for new or different features? Have competitors changed their delivery or distribution systems, their pricing, or product claims?

Frustration with the product itself, unresolved customer support issues and other “stealth disruptors” are seldom found in traditional “rate 1 to 5” surveys, yet their emergence can be reflected in customer attrition, reduced “buzz” or referrals, or bad product reviews that’ll impact the next crop of prospects.

New innovations, regulations, and business demands can impact an industry or a customer’s view of your product’s value. And a small group of customers willing to complain is often symptomatic of many more “silent sufferers” out there, waiting for that bug fix, new feature, or worse – a downright rebellion!

The product manager’s biggest challenge is the time it takes to do discovery right: in an unstructured, open-ended conversation with customers on a regular basis. Sure, you see them at a tradeshow or conference and gather lots of good (and bad) anecdotes. And in my view of the world, syndicated data, focus groups and typical surveys rarely provide the insights and “aha’s” of unstructured, open-ended customer feedback. Some companies actually require their product managers to make 1, 3, or even 5 customer outreach calls a day–gentle probes wrapped in a non-sales, general “how are we doing and thanks for your support” conversation.

Sadly, Running Customer Experiments actually scored even lower in the survey, with only 32% of respondents claiming to find “enough” time to test new features, functions, add-ons, delivery systems and other potential enhancements with the potential to improve customer satisfaction.

Take the test yourself. It’s free, and only takes a few short minutes. Self-analysis will give you a good feeling for where you’re strong versus peers, and where you’re not. See how more than 150 product managers rate themselves on more than a dozen key activities and behaviors, and be sure your personal performance is at the top of the heap! The survey was conducted by Alpha, which builds the best tools I’ve seen for dramatically increasing the speed, volume, and quality of customer experiments and feedback.

Bob Dorf is a leading lean customer discovery coach, helping intrapreneurs and entrepreneurs deliver things customers really want. He is also a strategic advisor at Alpha. Learn more about him at

Bob Dorf