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How product managers can go beyond the obvious in VOC
PDMA invited me to their conference, which was in Orlando, Florida, to interview some of their speakers. This speaker spoke on The Key to Successful Voice of the Customer (VOC) in Agile Teams.
This episode is sponsored by PDMA, the Product Development and Management Association. PDMA is a global community of professional members whose skills, expertise and experience power the most recognized and respected innovative companies in the world. PDMA is also the longest-running professional association for product managers, leaders, and innovators, having started in 1976. I have enjoyed being a member of PDMA for more than a decade, finding their resources and network very valuable. Learn more about them at PDMA.org.
Agile teams need to know what they are developing, and VOC is a tool for understanding what customers need. However, traditional VOC doesn’t meld well with development accomplished in a series of sprints. We’ll discuss how to get more benefits from VOC in Agile teams.
We are with Kristyn Corrigan. Kristyn is a principal and co-owner of Applied Marketing Science, a Boston-based market research consultancy that helps companies develop better products and services through harnessing the power of customer insights. She specializes in helping companies understand stated and latent customer needs through in-depth interviewing and ethnographic observation. She also trains companies to create and implement their own in-house Voice of the Customer programs.
Summary of some concepts discussed for product managers
[2:38] What is Voice of the Customer (VOC)?
There’s a temptation to think of VOC as any type of customer data, but when we think about VOC in a more systematic sense and fueling product development and innovation, we’re thinking about an in-depth understanding of customer needs. What is the customer trying to accomplish? What is the job to be done? What problems are our customers looking to solve? What things are important to them that the market isn’t currently delivering on? Effective VOC is understanding your customers in an in-depth way and getting beyond the obvious.
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[5:50] Can you talk about the friction that happens with VOC and time-box sprints?
Systematic voice of the customer is uncovering a complete set of customer needs that are prioritized by customers. Ideally, this process happens as early as possible in the stage-gate process, but it takes months and months to accomplish. That is in direct conflict with Agile teams’ working on tight timeframes and constantly iterating. These Agile teams might already have a product concept or prototype and still need customer insights. How can we infuse VOC into those moments and get meaningful customer insights? The aim is to be able to fail quickly. To do this, we need three pillars.
[7:34] Tell us about the three pillars of using VOC with Agile.
The first pillar is planning. The first part of planning is answering the question, “Who are the types of customers we really need to get feedback from?” The second part is figuring out what you’re going to have customers react to, which is the minimum viable stimulus. You want to show customers something that’s really easy to change. Don’t be too attached to a prototype.
The second pillar is asking the right questions to get beyond the obvious and get the information we need. Showing the customer a minimum viable stimulus and asking, “Would you purchase this product?” gets us a yes or no answer and does nothing for the development or optimization of the product. Instead, we want to understand why or why not the concept or prototype is appealing. We want to dig deeper to understand the individual features of the concept or prototype, what’s most appealing, what’s least appealing, and what jobs it accomplishes for our customers. We want to map back to customer needs. Ask, “Is the prototype accomplishing what you need it to do? What else could it potentially do? Did we miss anything big?”
[12:14] Are there some general questions you like to ask customers?
I love to ask customer to tell me stories. It’s a great way to organically get at the needs that may not be top-of-mind for them. I have them tell me about the last time they used a product or experienced a service.
For example, I was consulting with a company that manufactures accessories for enteral feeding pumps. They were developing a new bag and set of lines for these pumps. We started an open-ended exploration of how patients and caregivers interact with the pumps. One of the biggest insights we gained was the prototype had a bag the food was stored in that was extremely crunchy. When people described the experience of using one of these devices in public, they talked about how self-conscious they were and how they didn’t want to draw attention to themselves. That was not something the company designed to when they made their prototype, but after talking with customers and understanding their emotions and the story around this product, they ended up completely changing the prototype.
[16:09] What is the third pillar?
The third pillar is backlog prioritization. Agile teams have a backlog of features they’re managing toward, and we want to make sure we’re keeping that in mind through our voice-of-the-customer process. As we’re talking to customers, which typically happens in sets of five to ten interviews, we want to be iterating the concept as often as we need to, and that involves reprioritizing things. We shouldn’t be afraid of going back and changing the way we talk about a particular aspect of the product or removing a feature and seeing what customers think then.
[17:42] When do you do your five to ten VOC interviews?
Typically I do the five to ten interviews once the minimum viable prototype or stimulus is created. You don’t have to wait until the interviews are done to make changes. Make adjustments to the backlog or concept as needed while the interviews are happening. You’ll know if you need to do another round of interviews if you’re hearing varied feedback. You may realize you have more than one market segment and the segment you thought would be your primary market is not the primary one, so you may want to change the types of customers you’re speaking to.
[19:02] Do you do these interviews one-on-one or in a group setting?
We’re not doing the traditional exploratory VOC where you’re talking to 30 customers and trying to get an exhaustive list of customer needs. Instead, our process is needs-focused around a minimum viable stimulus that the customer is reacting to.
At the outset, we use screening criteria to profile the different types of customers we want to speak to. In the enteral feeding example I just talked about, we wanted to speak to patients, in-home caregivers, and professional caregivers.
I find that for VOC interviews with Agile teams, one-on-one interviews are best. You’re able to dig deep with an individual customer to understand their experiences, stories, and emotions. In a group setting, there’s sometimes reluctance to go deep and customers have to share air time.
[20:56] How do you set up the interviews?
Before 2020, the majority of these interviews were in-person, often because there was something we wanted customers to touch and interact with. Now we’re increasingly doing these interviews virtually, which is great because people are comfortable virtually. The most important person to have present in the interview is a skilled moderator who will guide the conversation. It’s nice to have a second person there taking notes and providing prompts if the moderator misses something, but I recommend that one person lead the interview. Otherwise it can be a little overwhelming for respondents and start to feel like an interrogation if it’s a two-on-one situation.
Sometimes we send products to customers ahead of the interviews, for example, the bag in the feeding pump example.
[23:19] Is there anything else we need to know about prioritization?
It’s important to do frequent check-ins with the team to prioritize the features of the concept, because it informs the types of questions you’ll ask other customers as you continue with interviews. Teams shouldn’t shy away from changing course and adjusting what they ask. These are qualitative conversations, not quantitative testing. You don’t have to ask every single customer the same exact questions and tally their responses. It’s an iterative process.
[25:39] What should an Agile team do if it finds it has two different features in the backlog that seem contradictory?
When teams are faced with contradictory specs or features, it’s great to have customer data to go back to. One possibility is to go back to the same customer and talk about it. If you can’t, perhaps you need to talk to other customers.
I love having transcripts of interviews so you can go back and pinpoint details.
The transcript is also a great tool to reference for marketing and sales language. Keeping the customer language is critical.
[28:48] What is the different between a minimum viable product (MVP) and minimum viable stimulus (MVS)?
I view MVP as the next step from MVS. The MVS is easier to change. We can’t be afraid to go back when we get it wrong and make adjustments. Once we have a product, we’ve already put a lot time, effort, and money into it, and it’s harder to kill that product if we need to.
Action Guide: Put the information Kristyn shared into action now. Click here to download the Action Guide.
- Learn more about Applied Marketing Science
- Listen to episode 071 on VOC with Gerry Katz
Thank you for being an Everyday Innovator and learning with me from the successes and failures of product innovators, managers, and developers. If you enjoyed the discussion, help out a fellow product manager by sharing it using the social media buttons you see below.