A couple of days ago I was driving home after a frustrating discussion with a mobile phone salesman when several things clicked into place for me and I suddenly understood things better. At least I was able to see things from a different perspective.
I had been talking to the salesman about which phone should replace the one I’m currently using – with its broken display window and a contract due to expire in a month, I’m getting a little anxious at the thought of not having already resolved this. All the phones under consideration suffer from one or more disadvantage, and there doesn’t seem to be a phone which is just right for me. I’m a little surprised by that, since I don’t believe my requirements to be particularly exceptional and I came away wondering why the heck there doesn’t seem to be a phone which is just right for me.
It was a warm, airless day and as I started the engine the air conditioning kicked in, replacing the stuffy atmosphere with cooler air in only a few seconds. Though the air-con was steadily maintaining a cool temperature, the atmosphere felt dull and I instinctively opened the window, desperate to breathe new life into the cabin. Almost instantly it changed. Though the temperature remained static, there was immediately more movement in the air, more energy and life. Outside the car I could hear different sounds and smell different smells. I felt better connected with my surroundings and my spirit was somehow lifted. It occurred to me that this change was also a metaphor for the way in which some organisations operate.
It’s very easy for organisations, large and small, to create a bubble around their people – forming an invisible wall between the employees and their customers; between the developers and their users; between their vision and its realisation.
It happens inadvertently, driven by an organisational structure which defines some people as being responsible for understanding the customer; others as being responsible for the relationship with suppliers, strategy creation, technology development, finance control; and still others being responsible for marketing etc. It doesn’t take much for these individual roles to become disconnected, forming silos or mini-empires requiring a significant amount of cooperation to get anything done. So much so, in fact, that there becomes very little time for anything else, and any form of communication with the “outside world” is regarded as an indulgence. After all, “why worry about the consumer too much when we have consumer insights experts to keep on top of that?”
I recognise this behaviour through personal experience – I have worked in large corporate organisations and have been aware of the bubble, as have my colleagues. Whenever problems have arisen, there have always been explanations to “resolve” them. But since the explanations are always delivered from an internal view, they serve only to justify rather than resolve.
One of my most valuable learning experiences as a product manager was when I spent a day working in a retail outlet selling mobile phones. I was pretty clued-up about phones (in fact on a geek scale of 1-10 I’d rate myself at a 10). I knew every model, every spec, every detail, and could talk knowledgeably about any of those phones for hours. I also had a good understanding of our consumers. At least I thought I had, until I started talking to them, whereupon I discovered just how little I knew. My “knowledge”, acquired through careful analysis of consumer insights material, told me everything I could possibly want to know about generalised consumer types, and absolutely nothing about individuals. This is rather like national stereotypes, which can provide an indicator at the collective level, but which tell us nothing about the individual.
That experience of getting personally close to the consumer taught me several things:
- Feeling a consumer’s pain and frustration is much more valuable face-to-face than reading about it in an anonymous PowerPoint.
- A conversation with a real consumer is a 2-way dialog with opportunities for questions and answers from both sides.
- Dealing with real consumers provides a calibration of the knowledge you already have, and serves as a reminder of how sterile and bland that knowledge actually is.
- Real consumers have questions which are not listed as “FAQs”. Working inside the bubble, how would you know what those questions are? And what’s the mechanism for answering them?
So my advice to organisations, and particular to Product Managers, is this:
Open the windows and breathe the outside air. Get out there!
The role of a Product Manager is to represent the consumer, and it’s just not possible to do that if you’re living in a bubble. You can’t feel what it’s like to be a consumer; you can’t experience something in the way a consumer does if you’re getting all your insights from PowerPoint, web research or anything else not experiential. It isn’t always practical to get out and breathe the outside air, and doing so won’t always deliver neatly packaged answers to all your questions. That, in itself, is an important message to understand.
Consumers confuse product managers by delivering mixed messages. Their sometimes stereotypical behaviour may be aligned with large groups, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t individuals. They certainly feel as individuals and in that respect the organisation, its products and its marketing must appeal to them as individuals.