Market research is easy. Visit customers

Market research is easy. Visit customers, with or without sales people. Go on sales calls. Go to user group meetings. Go to conferences. Call a few customers on the phone and ask to how they are using your product, where they find deficiencies, and what direction they are taking their own businesses. Listen. You don’t have to hire an agency; you don’t need to spend a lot of money. A quick phone call or skype meeting is often all that’s necessary to get in sync with your customers.

The job of product management is straightforward: find a couple of key customers and just do what they tell you. Find out what is needed and build it. That’s the idea behind “customer development” and the “minimum viable product.”

I was asked to evaluate a local charity’s workflows and systems, looking for ways to improve the process for the volunteers. I determined that another configuration would best fit their needs and spent a few hours implementing it.

I asked, “What else?” but they couldn’t think of any other area where my technical assistance was needed.

Willing to help in any way, I joined the team keying information into the database from requests for information. While I worked, I heard these very nice people using not very nice language. I asked what was wrong and they complained bitterly about bad information in many of the database records. Looking at a few examples, I realized someone had converted the database from one format to another and many of the fields had become corrupted.

I quickly set up a macro to move information from the incorrect field to the correct one, and asked, “Would this help?” They were thrilled! Time to market: 10 minutes.

The volunteers were performing manually a process that the computer system could do automatically—if only they had known. They didn’t have any problems that they knew of, but I discovered a big problem with a simple solution just by observing and working with them. I knew the technology but I had to “walk in their shoes” before I could see their problem.

This market research technique is what Luke Hohmann calls “The Apprentice,” in his book Innovation Games.

Do the job to understand the job and its challenges. In most cases, the customer doesn’t know he has a problem. A product manager must understand the customer’s situation better than the customer does, and use that knowledge to develop a solution for the customer.

Product managers build internal credibility by having up-to-date knowledge about customers. Spending time with customers and potential customers reveals problems that need to be fixed. Then work with your team to fix them.

Many strategic product managers make calls every day: to prospects, customers, and non-customers.

Do you?