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Voice of the Customer vs. Voice of the Sales Team

Geoff Anderson, back for another Technology Marketing Center outing.  This time, I am going to focus on the staple from the Marketing of Technology Products course, Voice of the Customer (or VoC).  As a long time product manager, VoC is a tool that I fall back to over and over again.  There really is no experience like sitting infront of real customers, and listening to them tell you about their world, their problems, and how they use your product to fill their needs.

One group that I have constantly battled regarding development, prioritization, and what is a must-have feature is Sales. As a product manager, it is very tempting to listen to your sales team and treat it as a proxy for VoC.  VoC is expensive, time consuming, and often yields results that are contrary to your expectations. But foregoing the formal VoC and relying on sales as "equivalent" to VoC is hazardous. Let's explore why that is.

First, Sales truly thinks on a deal-by-deal basis because that is their job.  Once they close or lose an order, they are off to the next big deal.  They are like a taxi driver, going from deal to deal like picking up fares.  They talk to the client, but are really thinking more about how to close the deal, and get to the next one in the funnel. Thus what they take away from their interactions with customers is remarkably superficial. It also is, not surprisingly, aligned with their best pitch for the product.

Second, Sales usually only remembers what spec/feature/widget that supposedly "lost" their last order.  It doesn't matter if it is something as trivial as color coordination of the product and its packaging, or is some esoteric feature that is completely bogus, they will pine for it, and swear if they only had that, they would close 20/30/40% more deals.

But when you actually go out to validate the priority, you often uncover nuances and intricacies that are glossed over, or never discussed at all. In 45 - 90 minutes, you will learn far more that a dozen sales conversations over a period of months. Many reasons why, but better for a future post.

Case in point: We make high end imaging systems.  They are amazing in their performance, and sales is really good at selling the "modularity" of the products. A customer can start with a simple system, and it can grow with their needs changing. It is this flexibility that Sales likes to leverage. But we also make a version that is almost the same price, has almost the same performance, but because of the sample handling, and the performance of the positioning system, it is far easier to use. You do give up some flexibility to achieve this. Sales rarely brings this product into the discussion unless there is a specific requirement for it.

Many reasons for this hesitancy, and at the top of the list are trivial things like video view, or consumable exchange are too complex on this system. Thus, they fall back to their comfort zone.

The interesing thing is that interviews with both our customers, as well as some lost opportunities, showed, that our competitors, with a comparable system (in performance, capability, and price) are very effective leading with this type of system, and falling back on the smaller/closed system when pricing dictates. The objections and limitations that were repeatedly cited in sales feedback were universally either not barriers, or in one case, a feature that sold a customer on our system.

One by one, every objection Sales put up was knocked down by actual discussions, with actual customers. What if I had just accepted the input from Sales as gospel, and dutifully delivered a product encompassing them?

In conclusion, throughout my product management career (14 years and counting), sales has given me grief (directly and via my management) for not accepting their prioritization for product development and evolution. Time and time again, I have demonstrated that their myopic view, and the shallow knowledge of how customers use our products justify my ranking of their input near the cut line.

For the record, very often in my VoC efforts, my own beliefs and internal thoughts about customers and their interaction with our products have been called to the carpet.  When that happens, I just discard them, rework my worldview, and move on.

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