"Ideally we'll never meet any of our customers"

My friend Len wrote me: I just saw something that completely floored me and it make me think about you and Pragmatic Institute. Apparently Marc Andreessen of Netscape fame was at a conference speaking about one of his new companies and he actually said - "Ideally we'll never meet any of our customers." He goes on to tell a horror story about when a customer came to the company office, apparently on a whim, to tell them how much he loved their stuff. Consequently they took down the sign to the office to keep something like that from happening again. You can see the video here; the clip is about 2 minutes in.

Certainly the whole "ideally we'll never meet our customers" is astounding but moreover, I think it explains the appeal of social networks to technical people. I'm barraged daily by requests via LinkedIn--and now Andreessen's new service--to be friends with strangers. It seems to me that social networks are the technical person's way of interacting without interaction; it's "let's be friends without being friendly." I just don't like the idea of automating friendship. And because it's automated, it's highly scalable. You can be friends with a million people that you don't know. But is that friendship?

My other observation is the danger of having two audiences. A live interview is focused on the people in the room and I wonder if Andreessen would have said the same things in the same ways if he'd been talking to only the web audience. A rule of giving presentations is to speak to the most easily offended person in the room. But who is in the room in a webcast? When giving a live presentation, you get clues from the audience--laughter or whatever form of audible or visual feedback-- which you don't get during a recorded session. In a recorded session, you'll use different presentation techniques, probably be less funny and colloquial, and stay more focused on the topic. Speaking to both a visible and invisible audience is hard! Who should you focus on?

Some technical people and companies seem to be saying, "This business would be so much easier if we didn't have to meet those darn customers." Welcome to the real world, Neo.

Sam offers another interpretation:

Some of the greatest software businesses of our day are businesses with no sales force, no support team, and barely no marketing department. Some companies have built products that are so in tune with their users, so in line with their markets, that mass adoption (and riches) occur by the brilliance of the solution to the problem their products address. I can agree with that. I want that for my product.

Much of traditional software product management has taught us to rely on internal channels like the sales team and the support team to get feedback about the market. We have learnt to rely on them to make sales possible. And so, we "copout" of our responsibilities as product managers to built truly great products that need little selling, little marketing and little support to succeed. Trust me, although the creators of Gmail have had no face to face contact with customers, it doesn't mean that they haven't been closely engaged with customers. That it happens online with all the barriers that that creates speaks more of their product management skills than of an attitude problem.

I see Marc Andreesen's statement as a reaffirmation of discipline and not taking the easy road, than of snubbing real users.

Steve Johnson

Steve Johnson

Steve Johnson was a founding instructor at Pragmatic Institute, a role he held for more than 15 years before he left to start Under10 Playbook. In his return to Pragmatic Institute, Steve supports the complete learning path for product teams, ensuring they are fully armed for success. 

Over the course of his career, Steve has helped thousands of companies and tens of thousands of product professionals implement product management processes. He has worked in the high-tech arena since 1981, rising through the ranks from product manager to chief marketing officer. Steve has experience in technical, sales and marketing management positions at companies that specialize in both hardware and software. In addition, he is an author, speaker and advisor on product strategy and product management.

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