The concepts behind structured customer visits are powerful tools that allows the product manager or marketing team to quickly validate their assumptions, and ensure that the market matches the internal view.
However, since you often must rely on groups that have an underlying agenda to select customers to visit, and also to coordinate the visits, there is a very real risk in this process. No, not the “familiar well” risk, where you run the risk of only visiting a small group of friendly customers, thus limiting the variety of opinions you listen to.
I am referring to the risk of being ambushed or trapped in your meetings.
Since you often rely on Sales to help identify and coordinate visits, the savvy sales person has an added incentive to usurp the selection process, and get the visit team to visit with their unhappy customer. Plenty of motivation on their part to do this, but in general it allows them to get 'revenge' for a situation that they are unhappy with.
When this happens (and if you do enough validation visits, it will happen), within a couple of minutes it becomes crystal clear that you have been ambushed, the customer is upset, and wants to vent. At you, at your company, at the product, about their woes. What can you do to salvage the meeting?
First, acknowledge to yourself that this isn’t going to yield useful information to help validate your position. Your discussion guide is in tatters, and the other members of the visit team are superfluous (although they can be helpful).
Second, let the customer vent their spleen. Sometimes they just want to unload, and since you are from the factory, you bear the brunt of it. Don’t try to deflect it. Don’t trivialize their issues. Let it run the course. Do take notes. To be attentive.
Third, when the customer comes up for air, engage them in a discussion. If you had no awareness of their issues (quite possible, unless you are extremely plugged into the support organization and escalations) ask clarifying questions. Use your open ended questions and paraphrasing to clarify their issues. Try to get to the bottom. Is it a bug in the software? Is it a workflow issues? Is support failing them in resolution? Whatever the issue is, get to the root cause.
Fourth, do not attach blame. You are likely seething internally at the sales person who set you up. But resist the urge to castigate them in front of the customer. They are the face your customer is used to seeing when they talk to your company. This can be really tough, but save the tongue lashing until you are alone with the sales person.
Pro tip: Do not raise this with sales management. Work it out with the sales person directly. Remember: You will need to work with this sales person over the long term, so be the bigger man, and build a relationship. I can assure you that while it will feel good to roast the sales person up the ladder, longer term, it’s a losing proposition.
Fifth, don’t commit to a solution. Do commit to investigation, and a follow up conversation (by phone) with the customer. When you get back to the factory, do the investigation, and understand the disconnect.
Sixth, begin to regularly communicate with this customer. Do keep the sales person in the loop, but you would be surprised how often you can completely turn around a bad situation with some extra touch points. This will also build kudos with the sales person, and they will think twice about ambushing someone from the factory.
Anyone who has done a significant number of structured customer visits will have some bad meetings. They happen, but instead of writing off the meeting, turn it towards a problem solving opportunity.
You just might turn a customer relationship around, and gain an ally in the sales organization, even if you were put in a tough place.