The lifeblood of product management is customer interaction. Getting out of the office, and sitting down with customers is a powerful aphrodisiac, and allows you to get unalloyed feedback. We do this as often as possible, hence why the typical product manager job description specifies 25 – 30% travel.

However, left to our own devices, much of this travel is less effective than it could be. Yes, it is important to go on sales calls to important accounts, and to do well customer visits, discussing roadmaps, support issues, and the state of the market. We are quite good at packing a lot into a week, but that doesn’t always translate to effective visits.

How can you make your customer visits more useful?

Enter the concept of “Structured Customer Visits.” Instead of tagging along with sales calls, or other ad hoc efforts, a structured visit program is much more. It is a coordinated series of visits to customers in more than one segment (and not just your “best” or favorite customers), with a cross functional team, using  a well defined discussion guide to ensure that you are consistent in your quest for learning across your customer visits, and a plan for analyzing the data at the end, coupled with a target audience within your organization.

What are structured visits good for?

Early in a product development process, after the initial marketing requirements are gelling, and you are looking to validate that you are capturing enough needs for the segments you are targeting.

Or to better understand the unmet needs of your customers.

Even to explore hypotheses before you undertake a potentially costly development program. Did you ever have an executive off the cuff tell you that if you build a specific product with a feature set, that they would fly off the shelfs? Prove it with a series of visits.

That said, they are definitely “Qualitative” not quantitative. They won’t tell you how much demand there is, or give you data to stand on for decision making. Their value is in the rich information that is gleaned. The ability to take a handful of basic questions from a discussion guide, and to probe deeply, going off the reservation, allows you to learn some surprising things that can’t be captured in a survey, or in conjoint analysis.

What they won’t tell you?

The fact that you can’t do a large number of them, primarily due to the cost (both the monetary cost, and the opportunity cost of staff being on travel) means that you don’t get rock-solid statistical data that can be used to drive decisions.

A major, cross regional series of visits might entail doing thirty or forty distinct customer visits. This often requires 2 or more teams to participate, and you can expect the visits to stretch easily to a quarter of a year. A serious undertaking by any measure.

However, the fact that they can’t give you quantitative data isn’t a detriment to their value. The insights uncovered can be enormous, and often will provide food for thought either with the current program or a future development effort.

Summary

Structured Customer Visits are a valuable tool for the marketer or product manager. Executed correctly, they can provide invaluable information that might be impossible to discover with a more traditional marketing research tool.

But they are not magical. They are but one arrow in the quiver that we can apply in our daily work. They are not inexpensive, but their value, particularly to the participants, is immeasurable. The “Aha!” moments that come out of this research often drive lasting strategic course corrections long after they are complete.

In the future, we will explore the mechanics of assembling the team, and executing the visits, offering tips that have helped me in the past.

Executive Takeaways:

  • Having a structured, cross functional, planned series of customer visits gives you a unique perspective of your market
  • Up front planning, and coordination is as key as the actual visits. Having a realistic expectation of what to learn, and a discussion guide to follow is key to correlating responses between interviewees
  • Sales visits, or well customer visits don’t count. Don’t fool yourself that you can do this ad hoc, spend the time and money to do it right

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