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Keeping Close to Customers

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This is the final part of a three-part series exploring how we listen to the market to become experts in what they need. The first article shows how product managers should listen to potential customers, the inactive members of our market who have not bought our products or our competitors? products (and are not looking). This second article discusses finding and listening to evaluators. This third article covers on-going communication with our existing customers. By listening to all three types, product managers become ‘experts on the market.’

Everyone seems to be on the ‘Voice of the Customer’ bandwagon. But I seriously doubt that most companies really understand what this means. They pay lip service to listening to the customer (that’s what customers expect), but they often don’t know how to do it proactively. And, being reactive, they often just listen to the noisy customers (not necessarily their best customers) and react to the squeaky wheels rather than focusing on the best interest of their market at large, creating real value that benefits many rather than a few.

Listening to customers is usually within the comfort zone of most product managers. But often, we do this as a reactive exercise rather than a proactive process. Tech support calls us up and says, ‘Go visit Customer X. They are not happy with us right now.’ Or a sales rep calls and says, ‘Go visit Customer Y. If you put in Feature A for them, they will be a good reference account.’ In this discussion we will explore not only how to listen to the noisy 20% of your customers (the ones most companies react to), but how to listen proactively to the quiet 80% of your customers as well.


Who are our customers and how do we find them?

If you sell enterprise-level software, hardware, or services, you should have a database of all of your customers. Even if you don’t have a company-wide database such as a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system, do some digging. Check with accounting and technical support–they are likely to have some contact information. If this database has been neglected, it is possible you’ll need to do a little sleuthing to find current contact information. If you sell desktop or personal high-tech products, hopefully, you have registration information for a percentage of your customer base. If not, it’s time to begin collecting it.

If you have a lot of products and/or services, obviously you should coordinate customer contacts. You would look silly if 4 or 5 product managers call on the same customer within a short period of time (‘don’t you guys talk to one another?). And every contact and every visit should be logged. Write up the details in a call report that can be referenced and shared with others later. This is the only way you can effectively remember what you learned and transfer the knowledge to others who need to know.

Don’t forget to look for regular users of your products. The actual product usage should be based on what they need, not what buyers think the users will need.

Here are some tips on how to find customers and how to engage them to learn about their needs.


Source How you find and engage them
Contract If your customers sign a contract with you, ask for key user information.

After the products have been installed, call the key user(s) and ask to visit. Most customers are delighted to have a product manager visit.

Registration If your product or service requires registration (with an unlocking key), collect contact information during registration (at least email address).

If your product or service does not require unlocking, find ways to motivate customers to register when they buy your products. Offer them something that doesn’t cost you a lot–free support for 30 days, free download of a utility, free tips about using your product.

Customer Relationships If you have an outbound (not selling) function to proactively interact with your customers, this is a great resource for customer research. See Maintaining Customer Relationships for more details on the value of this function in your organization.

Ask the customer relations rep to give you names of interesting customers for you to visit. Periodically, ask the reps to do quick phone or email surveys to quantify what is going on with your customers so you can make sure you are not simply reacting to the noisy 20%.

Online Forums Visit the forum periodically. This is noisy 20% but can be useful.

Respond to an issue the customer has raised. Contact the user directly for more information. Drill down on what the core problem is, not just the requested solution.

User Groups Ask the user group to vote on enhancement requests.

Here are two approaches to rating enhancements:

First, each company votes with a virtual $1000. You can place all $1000 on one idea; $100 on ten ideas; or $1 on a thousand ideas.
Second, (better for online) rate each request on this scale:

+2 I require this for the success of an upcoming project (no workaround exists)
+1 This would help but is not required (workaround exists)
+0 No opinion
-1 This would cause me to revise something already in production (workaround exists)
-2 This would completely mess up something in production (no workaround exists)

It is important to set expectations that this is input to the product planning, not a final decision. User groups do not often come up with breakthrough ideas; they usually focus on the trees, not the forest.

Customer Advisory Boards Any vendor can benefit from a Customer Advisory Board (CAB). Bring a group of six to ten customers together into a room to discuss their strategic plans and how your product can support their efforts.

Product management should pick the participants of the CAB. Salespeople will pick their best customers, not necessarily the ideal customer. We should include economic buyers, technical reviewers, and key users. We need to understand the needs of each in a complex buying cycle.

The agenda should include presentations by the customers of their strategic initiatives. If you have chosen representative customers, this should give you good input to your future product direction. Then review your product initiatives (present prototypes or a demo) and solicit feedback on how your product plans integrate with their initiatives. Finally, ask members to prioritize outstanding enhancement requests (see methods above under User Groups).

It is critical to set expectations that this is input to the product, not final authority.

Technical Support Tech Support interacts with the customer base frequently but remember that only the noisy 20% contact you. However, periodically follow-up on calls. (Your tech support people can point you to some interesting sites.)

Ask if you can visit them to see how they are using your products. Usually, they will be more than happy to accommodate you.

Customer Satisfaction Surveys Follow-up with some of the surveys (both satisfied and not satisfied).

Start with a phone call. Ask if you can further understand their responses to the survey. If the customer is receptive, ask if you can visit them.

Web Surveys Get people to your website periodically (tips, info, education, discussion group)–use this opportunity to ask them to fill out short survey; periodically do longer ones.

If you have good customer relations and proactively contact customers (not just to sell stuff), you will have a higher response rate to surveys. Keep the ad hoc surveys short and only do the longer ones annually. Publish the results on your website and offer the full report early to anyone who participates in the longer surveys.

Electronic Newsletter Another way to find customers and stay in front of them. Provide articles with useful, relevant information.

You can put a link to your surveys here, too.


What are we trying to learn?

What are the quiet 80% of your customers up to?

  • What is the satisfaction level with your products, services, and your company?
  • What is the implementation progress? If the product has become shelfware, why? Is it too hard to implement? Did the need go away (or didn’t really exist in the first place)? Did the product advocate leave the company? If you don’t proactively find out how they are doing, they might have quietly gone away to the competition.
  • How are they using your products and services? Is there a shift from buying criteria (things they had to have in the buying cycle) to how they really use the product (using criteria)?
  • How do the customers who don’t routinely contact us differ from the noisy 20% who do? Which customers are the most profitable?

Other things you are trying to learn:

  • Favorite features of your product (you may be surprised–it is often not what you think is the coolest thing); what delights them?
  • Would they recommend you to friends & family? If not, why not? What would it take?
  • Good reference sites; good beta candidates
  • What value are they receiving? Specifics–find references and case studies; ongoing win analysis (further validation on what you’re doing right)
  • Impact of your product quality on their business
  • How can your company improve products and services to retain customers (remember the lifetime value of customers)? If you sell new releases annually, what are customers looking for that they would be willing to pay to upgrade?
  • Additional opportunities (what new products and services might you offer–are there unfilled needs?)
  • How you can improve segmentation–if you haven’t segmented, analyze where your customers are. Is there a concentration in a certain segment? Are you successfully meeting their needs? Are they identifiable?
  • What is the profile of the ideal customer (what is a good target–demographics, technical profile, problems they have). This becomes helpful when training the sales force on who to focus their efforts on, on building products to satisfy needs for the target market, and for crafting the messages to attract the ideal customer.


When do we listen?

Listening to customers should be an ongoing activity, not just a once-a-year event. Product managers should plan to go onsite to visit customers at least once a month. On a quarterly basis, we should be contacting customers (through customer relations) to maintain the quality of our contact information.

We should be doing short surveys (phone and/or web) throughout the year and satisfaction surveys at least once a year.

Where do we listen?

Listen to customers everywhere–online, onsite, at user group meetings, customer advisory boards, technical support, usability labs, point of sale, focus groups (in person and online), and through email. Anywhere they might be. Their natural habitat is by far the most fertile, but take advantage of other places they might congregate.


How do we listen?

Listening is the key to this activity! Too often when we have an audience with our customer, our first instinct is to talk. (Talking is selling. This is not selling. This is research!)

Here are 10 tips on listening to customers:

  • Visit actual users (people who use the product daily) as well as buyers. Visit customers that represent your target segments.
  • Spend a ‘Day in the life?.’ Go onsite. Follow your customer around through the tasks of the day. See how they use your products and what other challenges they face every day. Observe how they work around limitations of your products. Ask, ‘Why did you do that?’ to get more insight into their work habits.
  • Photograph and/or video tape actual usage of your products either onsite or in a usability lab. Share with designers and developers if they are not able to go into the field.
  • Track implementation progress. What happens early on? What is going on in the middle? What is the transition from installation to daily usage? Do they need ongoing training? How much shelfware is there?
  • If the customer says, ‘You ought to build this, ‘ drill down to the problem. Always try to understand the problem they are trying to solve rather than focusing on the solution they are suggesting.
  • Share early prototypes and models with your customers and solicit feedback. Ask how they would use it, what problem it would solve for them. Try to understand the value it would bring (actual cost savings, time savings, increase in revenue or market share). Is it intuitive to use? Do they understand how to navigate through the product? Beta is much too late in the process to get this feedback.
  • Drill down on satisfaction (surveys take the temperature, you need to find the cause).
  • Are they early adopters? Where are they in the technology life cycle? Balance who you listen to across the lifecycle (early adopters, early and late majority, laggards).
  • Sift through the noise. Rather than reacting to a single customer request, look for patterns and understand how the request will impact multiple customers rather than a single customer. Look for critical problems to solve, not just cosmetic. Look to solve problems for the market at large, rather than a market of one. Urgent, pervasive problems that people are willing to pay to solve.
  • Go with a friend. Four ears are better than two.


Remember, it’s the voice of the customer (not yours!). Make this proactive by tapping into the quiet 80%, not just reacting to the noisy 20%.

And don’t forget to balance the voice of the customer with listening to potential customers (that part of your market not yet buying) and recent evaluators (to learn why you’re winning and why you’re losing). Product managers should plan to visit one potential customer, one recent evaluator, and one existing customer per month–onsite in their natural habitat. By listening to and observing all three groups, you will become an expert in your market: the foundation to defining products and services people want to buy.

  • Barb Nelson

    Barb Nelson has been a market-driven evangelist for decades, having successfully managed and launched multiple generations of B2B products. For 12 years, she was a top-rated Pragmatic Institute instructor, consultant and content developer with a unique view of the technology landscape. She is vice president of marketing for Sage Construction and Real Estate, and is a frequent speaker on product management and marketing (including 11 ProductCamps and many Silicon Valley Product Management Association events). She can be reached via email at [email protected], on Twitter at @barbaragnelson or @SageBarb or on LinkedIn at


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