Sunday, September 12, 2010

Bloomberg: "Stop Hiring Leaders from Your Industry"

In their Bloomberg piece, "Why Innovation Is Beginner's Luck", G. Michael Maddock and Raphael Louis Vitón write that companies emphasizing industry experience in their hiring practices do not, as a general rule, innovate well.

On a related note, I've written before that industry experience is a poor substitute for the ability to learn markets. And don't forget Buckingham and Coffman's observation that the best managers hire for talent, not for experience.

If you are hiring for innovation, the first bit of advice from Maddock and Vitón is:

"Stop hiring leaders from your industry. Ask recruiters to look for a specific problem-solving ability instead of industry experience. Find leaders who have created the results you want in a unique way. For example, if you are faced with disintermediation issues—and all service companies are—look for experts who have tackled disintermediation. It's likely better that they know nothing about sump pumps or whatever your business is, because it will enable them to solve your problem and challenge your paradigms. Beginner's luck."
For executives looking to hire product managers and designers, I think this advice is particularly important.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

What Is Buying Facilitation®?

Believe it or not, prospect problems and product positioning play only a small part in customers' decisions to purchase or use your product. The majority of obstacles to product adoption lie in the behind-the-scenes decision-making processes that people and organizations face.

It's true I've dedicated many entries on this blog to pointing out that, to market and sell a successful product, you must develop it so that it:
  1. Solves problems that prospective customers face.
  2. Captures or "owns" a compelling position in the mind of the prospective customer.
Many, if not most, products fail on both these counts. I've explained how the best product managers acquire market understanding and apply marketing principles to address these issues. Nonetheless, even products that solve problems and are well positioned often fail, because buyers weren't able to deal with change management issues that precede the purchase of a product.

Prospects wishing to purchase and use your product face resistance from internal stakeholders, buying processes that are burdensome and bureaucratic, and entrenched ways of doing things that a new product would disrupt. Why on Earth would a prospective buyer subject herself to all these risks and frustrations?

In short, sometimes the buying decision process is so cumbersome and politically difficult that buyers choose not to make a change or purchase. More business is lost to "maintaining the status quo" than is lost to competitive offerings. For a prospective customer, continuing to live with the status quo is often a much more appealing option than slogging through the pain of a buying decision and changing the way they do things.

If we concentrate solely on solving problems for customers and positioning our product in the market, we ignore the most important obstacles to product adoption.

Sharon Drew Morgen tells us how to pave the way for customers to buy and use a new product: Buying Facilitation®. I include the ® symbol because Sharon Drew coined the term and has registered it as a trademark. (At this point, you're thinking that you already know what Buying Facilitation® is, and that you're already doing it. Not likely. When I first began to learn about it, I mistakenly thought I was already doing it. By the way, Buying Facilitation® is not the same as SPIN selling or interviewing prospects.)

Buying Facilitation® is an addition and complement to conventional selling that helps buyers address the change management issues preceding any purchasing decision. It does so by helping them to deal with behind-the-scenes internal politics, processes, relationships that they will inevitably have to confront. While sales does needs assessment and product positioning, Buying Facilitation® comes before these activities and requires a different skill set.

We, sitting on the outside of each individual buyer's unique system, will never fully understand their buying decision processes and challenges. But with Buying Facilitation®, we apply a new set of skills to guide them through the steps they will have to follow to address the change management issues, before considering the pros and cons of our product. As Sharon Drew says, we play the role of "neutral navigator". Before buyers can purchase, they must get internal buy-in. They will do so with or without us. We can play a part by applying the new set of change management skills Buying Facilitation® embodies.

Using facilitative questions, Buying Facilitation® helps buyers:
  1. Identify the stakeholders that must buy into any purchasing decision.
  2. Identify the individuals, departments, and processes that a new solution would affect.
  3. Decide if they really need a new solution or can manage a workaround using convenient choices.
  4. Manage the relationships, internal politics, and historical baggage they will face as they seek buy-in.
  5. Formulate a plan to talk to internal stakeholders and assemble a buying decision team.
Sharon Drew's latest book, Dirty Little Secrets, has some great examples of the types of change management questions we may ask as we navigate prospects through their buying decisions:
  • "Can you tell me how you currently get your site designed and administered?"
  • "How will you know that it would be viable to use an outside vendor when the current tech team has historically done all of the site design?"
  • "What will the disparate groups need to know or understand to decide to work together?"
  • "What will your CFO need to reconsider or know in order to allow in a new vendor when one of her reports is the tech manager?"
  • "How will you know that the historic issue can teach us how to avoid the same problem as we move forward?"
We ask these questions not to get the answers for ourselves, but to stimulate and help the buyer to find the answers she needs. In her training classes, Sharon Drew teaches the sequence of questions, which depends partly on the buyer's specific circumstances. (Incidentally, she is holding small public training programs on Buying Facilitation® in Austin and Boston this September.)

By playing the "neutral navigator" role, we become a trusted adviser. Since we've helped the buyer navigate painful buying decision and change management issues, they are likely to include us on the buying decision team (as long as we stay neutral and focus on change management rather than sales). They may even choose our product automatically when they are ready to buy.

The person employing Buying Facilitation® is often someone resembling a sales person, but with an important new set of skills. How do you think product managers can incorporate Buying Facilitation® concepts?

[UPDATE: Here is Sharon Drew Morgen's legal definition of "Buying Facilitation®":

Buying Facilitation® designates very specific set of systems-based skills that help buyers (and anyone) navigate through the full range of their behind-the-scenes change management and decision issues – usually not need- or solution-related but based on internal relationships, politics, rules, etc. necessary for change: pre-purchase, pre-needs assessment, pre-solution choice…pre sales.]

Monday, July 26, 2010

Provide the Shortest Path

Trying new things - especially new software products - can be both intimidating and time consuming.

You face a challenge when introducing a product in the marketplace. The forces of nature are working against you, since almost everyone but "early adopters" resists trying new products.

A major reason people resist trying new products is the learning curve. People simply don't have the time or patience to wade through pages and pages of documentation just to figure out what a product does, envision what it's like to use it, and how it would disrupt the way they live their lives.

One thing you can do to minimize this obstacle to adoption of your product is to provide the shortest path. Providing the shortest path means minimizing the time and effort necessary for a first-time prospective user to obtain demonstrable value from your product.

To provide the shortest path, you do some combination of the following:
  1. Make available a "quick start" guide that a prospective user can read in under ten seconds and get a feel for how she would use the product.
  2. Provide a demo (or full-fledged product) that enables first-time users to accomplish their primary goals with almost no time or effort.
Your product manager can drive this effort by defining personas and usability requirements relating to first-time users.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Henry Ford's "Faster Horse" Quote

You may have heard the (apocryphal) Henry Ford quote:
If I'd asked customers what they wanted, they would have said "a faster horse".
Over at the On Product Management blog, Saeed gives his take on this infamous quote. He "hates" it, and gives some compelling reasons. Saeed is spot on in his explanations.

Personally, I think the quote is great, but it's a matter of interpretation.

The valid point of the quote is not that it's a bad idea to facilitate a conversation with your market to better understand it. The valid points are:
  1. You must ask the right questions to get valuable answers.
  2. You must interpret the answers thoughtfully - often outside their direct meaning - to glean reliable information.
  3. Asking questions is not always the best way to "listen" to your market. (E.g., sometimes pure observational studies are more reliable.)
Nonetheless, I find the quote is helpful to combat "armchair product management" in the product development organization. You probably know the drill. An engineer, sales person, or executive insists on a feature and justifies it by saying that many customers have requested it, as if no deeper analysis is necessary to determine whether we should add the feature to the product.

But in our conversations with customers, we shouldn't be focusing on features. We should be striving to understand the problems they face. They are not experts on the features or solutions; they are experts on their experiences and challenges. If we ask them what they "want", they are likely to think of solutions and short-circuit the all-important understanding of the problems they face.

The Henry Ford quote (whether he actually said it or not) is a stark and simple falsification of the notion that a direct poll of customers is sufficient to draw conclusions about features. We should not use the quote to dismiss the importance of listening to our market, however.

If you found this blog entry enlightening, you might also enjoy another one on five ways companies make product decisions.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Getting Feedback on Usability

It's common for people at all levels of a company, and in all company departments, to comment on the usability of the product or company web site and give suggestions on how to improve it.

Why? Here's a clue. I wrote in late 2005 that:
Most people, including executives, consider much of marketing to be common sense. We're all consumers, so we all know how we respond to products, names, logos, advertisements, and PR, right? So we're all experts on what works in marketing, no?
Wrong. See the original blog entry to learn why marketing is not common sense.

The same principle applies to usability. In playing the role of consumer in many aspects of our lives, we use products and web sites, and we know which ones are usable - and perhaps even what makes them usable - right?

Wrong. Just as marketing isn't common sense, usability isn't common sense, and for the same reasons.

Nonetheless, debates over usability and strategies for redesign can get quite contentious and time consuming. Even if a company is smart enough to have skilled interaction designers and user interface designers, the designers are often caught in the middle, but their expertise ignored.

There is a way of resolving these questions: a product manager frames the usability metrics and conducts tests on representative users to measure the usability of the current and proposed designs.

Unfortunately, many team members still have a bit of "overconfidence" in their ability to conduct this testing themselves. For example, a favorite idea of executives is to form a focus group, ask members of the group questions about the designs, and possibly ask them for design suggestions. Good product managers and usability experts know this approach is flawed.

Usability guru Jakob Nielsen tells us why usability testing is not as straightforward as the average company employee or executive may think:
The way to get user data boils down to the basic rules of usability:
  • Watch what people actually do.
  • Do not believe what people say they do.
  • Definitely don't believe what people predict they may do in the future.
Good product managers know how to elicit, gather, and interpret usability feedback, because by definition they know how to facilitate market input and draw appropriate conclusions from it.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Costs of Launching a New Brand

Reading Al Ries and Laura Ries' War in the Boardroom, I took particular note of the following excerpt (page 36):
[A] left brainer at a smaller company thinks, "We can't afford the costs of launching a new brand. So let's use our existing name. Furthermore, we already have some good consumer recognition. With a new brand, we'd have to start all over again. We don't have the resources to launch a new product and a new brand at the same time, nor is it necessary to launch a new brand."
The authors ridicule this line of reasoning, which is unfortunately common even among marketing professionals. The authors counter that successful product strategists:
  1. Strive to create a new product category.
  2. Create a new brand to stand for that category in the mind of the customer.
  3. Keep the brand focused on that one category.
In the short run, creating a new brand may be more expensive. But in the long run, trying to "stretch" a brand name to stand for more than one category is even more expensive.