Monday, January 09, 2012

Top 5 Prospect Interview Mistakes

One invaluable tool that product managers use to understand markets is the prospect interview.  We identify prospective buyers and users who may share a common set of problems, and we conduct one-on-one interviews with them to probe their situations and dig deep into the challenges they face.  The situations and challenges inform our product strategy and decisions.
If you're a company executive, you may be reluctant to empower your product managers to conduct interviews with prospects, as what happens during these interviews could potentially jeopardize a future sale.  Even if you have confidence in your product managers not to jeopardize a sale, you may view prospect interviews as a dubious way of gaining market understanding.

Rest assured that prospect interviews will tend to foster trust and enhance future sales possibilities while providing a richer understanding of the market.  But only if product managers conduct them properly and avoid certain pitfalls.

The top five mistakes product managers make when conducting prospect interviews are:

1.  Pitch the product.

The biggest no-no when conducting a prospect interview is to attempt to sell the product or pitch its benefits.  It immediately puts the prospect on the defensive and undermines the purpose of the interview, which is to understand the prospect.  It communicates to the prospect that you think you already understand her needs, without even having probed into her unique circumstances.  You're effectively telling her what she needs instead of determining what she needs.

2. Ask the prospect what she wants.

If, during our conversations with them, we focus on what prospects want, we distract them from what we really need to understand.  We need to guide the conversation to the situation and challenges they face, not to what prospects think they want.  Once we understand what problems they face, and choose which ones to solve with our product, our team of design and implementation experts can come up with the innovative solutions to those problems.

3.  Ask the prospect to design the product.

As a general rule, prospects are not experts in designing solutions to the problems we may choose to solve for them.  If they were, they probably wouldn't need us or the products we develop.  With a product manager's skilled facilitation, however, we can work with prospects to uncover their problems.  In some cases, it may be beneficial to "co-create" the product with prospects or customers, but a prior investigation and mutual understanding of what problems to solve is a prerequisite.

4.  Ask hypothetical questions.

"How much would a product that does X, Y, and Z be worth to you?"  "How many times per day would you use feature X of our product?"  These types of questions are hypothetical and generally yield little useful information.  Prospects don't know what they would do.  They know what they actually (currently) do.  Conclusions extrapolated from what prospects actually do are often more reliable than direct answers to hypothetical questions.

Some hypothetical questions are necessary and useful.  In general, however, try to rephrase hypothetical questions as factual questions that give you insights into the patterns likely to guide prospects' future behavior.  For example, instead of asking how much they'd pay for a product, determine how much it costs them not to use your product.

On a related note, be careful with direct questions.  A direct question isn't open ended; it makes assumptions that may not be valid and ignores other possibilities that might be important.  Start with open-ended questions to allow for answers you can't anticipate and delve into more direct questions only after you've given the prospect an opportunity to introduce unanticipated topics and concepts.

5.  Ignore change management issues.

No matter what problems a prospect faces, and how much it costs his organization, the problems are usually nestled comfortably within a system that's resistant to change.  Explore these change management issues with the prospect.  Determine the people and processes tied to the problems the prospect and the organization are facing.  Use Buying Facilitation® to determine change management issues that would precede any purchase or attempt to adopt a new solution.  Standing outside the prospect's system, you will never be able to understand all of these issues, but you'll get a more complete picture of the prospect's situation and challenges if you stimulate her to consider the system in which they occur.


In many organizations, it can be an uphill battle for product managers to talk to prospects outside of a sales call or presentation.  Consequently, product managers who do manage to interview prospects feel a sense of accomplishment and confidence in their market understanding and product decisions.  However, this confidence can be misplaced if the product manager has made these common mistakes when conducting prospect interviews.