Our last post was an overview of what is a structured series of customer visits, and a high level overview. This next post in the series will dive deeper, and discuss the importance of structured customer visits being cross functional.

Even though structured customer visits are technically “marketing” research, for them to be valuable requires that many of the key groups in the organization are involved. Assuming that the program of visits is to either verify, or confirm your assumptions about a customer need that you are targeting a development program around, there are many stakeholders that have a dog in the hunt.

  • Finance – the finance team is often responsible to track development costs before launch, and the profitability of the sales ramp.
  • Engineering – as the owners of the development effort, it is usually very helpful to have them participate so as to understand the needs that are being fulfilled, and to share ownership with marketing for the requirements.
  • Management – Ultimately responsible for the whole organization, their input, and approval is critical. Having them in the planning process, and at some level, participating in the exercise is a big help with buy in.
  • Marketing – of course, the marketing team needs to understand the needs of the customer, and to help craft product requirements to address those needs. Also, participation by marketing is useful, as often Product Management is part of the marketing team.

The Planning

Before ever setting foot on an airplane it is important that this cross functional team is assembled. Typically either someone from marketing (or Product Marketing) or a Product Manager will be the leader or program manager for the planning.

The first task is to identify what questions precisely will be answered by this series of cross functional visits.

Pro tip: have the team leader propose the initial questions, and have the team debate / refine the questions. If you start with an open brainstorming session, it will diverge and no consensus will be reached.

Over several meetings of the team, the goal should be to get to no more than three “big” questions to answer. If you have more than that, and can’t reduce them to three questions, you probably should look to a survey instead of customer visits.

The importance of having the cross functional team is twofold. First, the diverse opinions and agendas of the different stakeholders are important to weigh. Second, if you omit a team because they are difficult, you are not doing yourself a favor. You can bet your last dollar they will fight against any results you identify from the exercise, and make your life difficult.

Visit Team(s)

As mentioned in the initial post, a successful series of visits requires enough distinct customers and visits to yield statistical relevance. That means a thorough program is thirty or forty visits. Accomplishing this out of the office with multiple team members would be a significant burden for a single team. The recommendation is to have two or more teams to conduct the visits and interviews.

But what is a suitable team make up? In a perfect world you would have three members as part of each team, a moderator who asks the questions, and follow up questions, a scribe, and a subject matter expert (SME) to lend gravitas to the process. But in a pinch, you can live with two members, a skilled moderator, and combine the scribe / SME role. In this case, it would likely be a marketing person (or product manager) for the moderator, and an engineer as the scribe / SME. In this case, it is also advisable to record (with the subject’s permission) the interview.

Why is it crucial to have a scribe as well as a moderator?

As you will need to be respectful of the time of the person you are interviewing, and you want to not slow the process down, the moderator really needs to focus on the discussion guide, and the follow up probing questions.

If your moderator is constantly pausing to jot notes, or to capture thoughts, it slows their delivery of questions, and can interfere with the stream of consciousness in the interviewee. Regardless, it is best to not encumber them with this duty.

Since you will likely have two or more teams, it is now clear why the up front work to identify the two or three key questions to answer, and to generate a discussion guide to be followed. This provides some consistency between the visits, and is very important in doing the post visit analysis of the data, ensuring that similar themes were followed.

Summary

As mentioned above and in prior posts, a structured series of customer visits is a powerful qualitative marketing research tool. Executed properly, it can validate your assumptions of the market needs, and help align your development requirements to address those needs.

However, it is not a trivial undertaking, and ensuring that you have an up front understanding of what strategic questions you want to answer, and to have a cross-functional buy in by the stakeholders is key.

Don’t expect miracles, but surprises do happen, and the cost/complexity of the process is well worth the expense.

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