Product management · Surveys

What are the best questions to ask for creating a good voice of customer, from sales people?

Muzzammil Hussain Product Manager at Stanley Black & Decker, Inc.

August 7th, 2015

I am a product manager in a rivets producing company. We have a technologically advance product ad which is doing well in the market. It hardly has any competition but we believe this product should 10 times better sales than it is doing right now. I want to create a voice of customer for which i wanna ask several questions to sales representatives since they are the one who actually speak to the customers. 
Thanks for your advice.

Jerome Pineau Chief Digital Officer

August 7th, 2015

As a product manager _you_ are the one who must be talking to the customers/prospects first and foremost - in person and not via sales proxy. That's #1 - you have to be "out there" as 2nd hand information is not reliable in this business.
Second, I would suggest that one of the most effective ways to surface VOC is via community - at least on the social side.
Nice challenge - good luck!

Muzzammil Hussain Product Manager at Stanley Black & Decker, Inc.

August 7th, 2015

This was the first time i posted a question here and i am amazed by the rich and valuable answers. Thank you so much, Mark, Jerome, David and Glenn.
I wasn't very clear in explaining my inquiry. So, here it goes:

Stanley engineered fastening has new and advance series of rivets named speed rivets. They can save a lot of considerable time in riveting process. We are having competition in those but we are still the best in the market.
In the category of speed rivets we have neospeed rivets on which we have rights and no one has copied it.

These rivet's technical advantages(eg. shear and tensile strengths) is the best among any other kind of rivets. It is of course a little higher in price than tradition rivets.

The management of the company absolutely believes that we have a chance not just to grab the most of speed rivets market but also grab a considerable share of traditional rivets market.

As my boss explained that the company wants to have a fresh set of eyes for this. I have been hired 3 weeks ago and have gone through some technical training. I am an engineer and a master in management with almost 4 years of experience in sales and business development.

I have been thinking to get all the data why and why not this product is successful in different market sectors. I am thinking to do a survey with my own sales people and one survey with the customers.

Glenn you are absolutely right about surveying own sales reps is not a voice of customer.
Though you guys have given me quite enough to go with right now, but with these details if anything else comes to your mind please let me know.

I would like to thank again all four of you and i will let you know how this project progresses.

David Telleen-Lawton Using Customer Discovery to mold innovative Master of Technology Management degree

August 7th, 2015

Great explanation...I would double my emphasis on meeting the real end-users and not waste time with surveys until you know what questions to ask.

You will not get the answers you need by surveys...but if it's the best way to figure out who to speak with directly and where to observe the decision to buy or not buy, then go ahead.  Surveys will NOT give your accurate, actionable data or feedback...or rather, you will get such a low return on effort compared to direct discussions that you will wish you hadn't wasted time on the surveys.

Mark Wing Client Engagement Director at Small Back Room

August 7th, 2015

Hi Muzzammil, your challenge sounds very interesting. However, your question is not so clear. Does this product you speak of have a clear brand strategy? Or, is this something you are in the process of developing? Perhaps your sales people could seek feedback from your customers on what the perceived emotional and functional benefits of the product are... However, customers do not know what they do not know, and if you wish to own the 'new' territory your product is creating then you will need to 'own' a bold strategy to claim your first-mover advantage asap. To do this you need to clearly define the market place, where your opportunity comes from and what threats you need to defend against. Only then will you will be able to define the product's value proposition for each target audience and establish some key messages to focus your sales and marketing activities around.

David Telleen-Lawton Using Customer Discovery to mold innovative Master of Technology Management degree

August 7th, 2015

Were I in your position, I would:
*  As you suggest, meet the sales representatives in at least two of the "local" stores.  Talk to more than one if it is possible.  Ask about FACTS about the purchasers FIRST, before you ask about their opinions about purchasers.  Perhaps even look at the specific sales records.  Ask them to describe the customers who buy.  Ask them to describe customers who don't buy.  What questions they ask.  What project are they doing. Anything they can remember about the prospective customer. 

*  Find out about the frequency of discussions about the product.  The hope is that the frequency is high enough that you can "camp out" and be part of some of these discussions and OBSERVE the interaction.  Do this until you have a clear idea of the type of usage, business, person that is interested in your product and should want to buy it 80% or more of the time (not academically, perfectly, but rather the ripest fruit on the lowest branches).  Or better yet, does buy it that often.

This could take 3 or 4 interactions or it could take won't take more than 30.

*  Your next move depends upon what you find.  Are the people you think should buy, buying?  Then go out and find more of them and find out why they don't buy.  Are the ones you think should buy, not buying.  Figure out why not.

*  Don't substitute sales representatives for customers.  However, they are an important part of the equation.

*  It is an equation...X people have the need, (X-n) people see your product, (X-n-m) people buy it.  What did the n+m people do to solve their problem?

*  Maybe you overestimate the market (X) and you are already selling to 100% of the people who need it plus a few more (X+t).  Maybe you are only getting 1 in 20 people who need it, but those people never come into your stores (or your sales reps never call on them).

You have to do the work, get the data, learn the facts.  It doesn't take very long...then all of your decision making is easy.  Don't settle for guess.

There is NO OTHER WAY to figure this out except by you or someone on your team understanding the whole need-purchase cycle.

Do the detailed work and the answer falls into your lap.

Glenn Donovan Vice President of Sales (fractional)

August 7th, 2015

Hi Muzzamil - A few thoughts for you:

1. Voice of the "customer" is typically feedback from your customers - and you aren't talking about surveying your existing customers so it's really not "VOC" but just survey research. In your case, I like the idea of surveying your sales channel. They likely know what the competitive issues are and can give you some sense of what you can do without making a huge effort. An important consideration is whether they are independent reps or reps employed by the company.

2. I see you are with Stanley - they must have a market research group already. I'd ask one of those folks to construct a survey for you so you ask the questions in the best way possible. If this is an independent project, then you could use something like Survey Monkey for free or close to it, depending on how fancy you want to get. Just remember the feedback you will get may not be valid and reliable if you are doing this informally. It will give you "leads" to follow up and hypotheses to test out in other ways.. Remember to give the reps the ability to comment as well - comment feedback can be gold. I especially like doing this if they are independent reps as they usually carry competing products and know the value chain and local markets very well. But be careful, not all sales feedback is going to be useful.

3. David is spot on above when he calls on you to size the market properly. Make sure you understand the actual strategic situation you in as well - who are you up against and their product/value prop. If I was you and had some resources, I would very likely sponsor some targeted market research and/or focus groups - David is showing you how to do that informally, which you can do as well with just sweat and cooperation from sales folks.

Fyi, I should probably add that I'm a certified Net Promoter Customer Experience management consultant (among other things) and have been directly involved in creating and using survey research programs wrt loyalty, customer experience and for market research. Without knowing quite a bit more about your situation it's impossible to tell you what "questions" should be in the survey. 

David Telleen-Lawton Using Customer Discovery to mold innovative Master of Technology Management degree

August 7th, 2015

You're right, I don't know how it works because I've never seen it work for the type of information he needs to do his job well.  It's a red herring.  Waste of time except to perhaps help him identify with whom to spend time.

For example, to whom will the survey be sent?  You can't know how to target without getting the on-the-ground details.  He needs to see how the people are dressed, how they talk, their reaction to what the sales folks are saying.  It's okay to be biased if every salesperson is need to get into the head of the potential user/customer...just can't be done with check boxes, write a note, answer my question.  Half the questions aren't known for the first three engagements.

Later, when you know your target market, when you know the key questions that qualify, then you can survey to figure out whether a certain untapped segment might be worth focusing upon.

Can surveys tell management why their 10x estimates is achievable or laughable?  For that you need stories, context.  

In the time it takes to create a "good" survey (that even then doesn't really have the right questions), he could have had face-to-face meetings with 10 people who bought and 10 people who considered buying it but didn't and be a lot closer to figuring out the business opportunity and what it takes to develop it.

Then he can scale his data collection with a survey.

I once was part of a big presentation to the CEO of AMD about a new product and had to reconcile our numbers we built from the ground up with Forester Research, the lords of storage equipment research, and their much larger numbers.  I was told that our number would be harder to swallow considering Forester's reputation if we couldn't close the gap.

We had gone over our numbers very carefully, even originally doubling them as an error factor on what we might have missed.

Finally the night before the presentation, I called the research firm and reviewed our methodology, etc.  They said it sounded good, we probably hadn't missed anything, and then I was asked, "What number did we give you?"  I told him.
"Oh, we just revised our number two days ago down to XX"  I was greatly relieved because although the numbers did not match, it was now close enough that it was not material.

"What changed?  Why did you shrink your number?"  Answer:  "Manufacturing shortfall"   "Oh, what's Manufacturing shortfall?"  "Well, the way we built this number was to call all of the suppliers and ask them about their plans.  They recently reduced their plans."  !!!

The lesson I learned was 'supply-side' market research is not very useful for anything but commodity products.

Now, I realize that's just one subset of the market research universe, but these guys were the standard bearers.  That combined with my own first-hand experience taking surveys and questions that don't even scratch the surface to understand my purchase decision making, tell me working with market research and surveys is just not a good return-on-effort until you are measuring very specific things or shifts of feelings.

So, I would never, ever, bet my job or company on market research.  Whereas I've looked VCs and BoDs in the eye and shifted my company's focus based on face-to-face engagement with prospective customers.

Yes, I do feel strongly about it.

Glenn Donovan Vice President of Sales (fractional)

August 7th, 2015

And you still don't have a clue about survey research. But whatever, I'm not here to help Stanley or argue about facts that are well accepted across the modern business world. You also keep moving the goalposts and introduce things like "bet my job or my company" - was that the question?  Of course not. And if I want to be as hyperbolic and positional as you are being, I could point out that "betting the company" on a few conversations with buyers (in a market with tens of thousands of buyers) is ridiculous.   

Little hint as to the ignorance you are displaying of how survey research works. Another part of survey research is called "recruitment" - building the panel of respondents. This is a common challenge that contemporary research firms all know how to solve well - a good firm can construct panels of just about any role or type of person. 

If I was consulting to Stanley, I would suggest sponsoring a competitive analysis and have it performed blind from the brand. But hey - I would also charge Stanley 2500/day for that advice if I was still in the business.

One wonders why this makes you so emotional. This is my last comment on the topic.

David Telleen-Lawton Using Customer Discovery to mold innovative Master of Technology Management degree

August 7th, 2015

Well, in my startup world, it is betting the company or my job, so I didn't consider it hyperbole when I said I wouldn't do it.

I may be ignorant about market research helpful impact for a question like this, but that's because I've never seen any evidence of it.  I know it has it's place, but not for this problem, except at the end of the line.

I have so much energy behind this because I don't think he should waste time and money constructing panels until he meets some prospective customers who bought and some who did not buy.

I agree, we've beat this to death.

Glenn Donovan Vice President of Sales (fractional)

August 7th, 2015

Uh, David, you are simply wrong in what you assert about survey research. I'm not sure whether you are unfamiliar with survey research or had bad experiences or are just biased, but your commentary is quite at odds with what's well known about survey research.

There are of course limits to what one can learn via survey research. But what David seems to not understand is how biased personal observations necessarily are. I also do not imagine for a second that one should proceed without talking to users/customers/prospects - this goes without saying. But you will not get the kind of valid and reliable insights out of informal conversations that you can get out of survey research.

And I've known many, many companies that have improved many aspects of products, marketing. service etc based on findings from survey research. Your last statement about "wasted time on the surveys" is simply wrong. Survey feedback is often actionable and is the entire purpose of certain types of survey research (customer experience and satisfaction surveys come to mind).

Fyi, in the interest of even fuller disclosure, I'm not in the survey research business and don't offer any services of that type. But I am very familiar with its applications from past experience in the real world, hence my corrective commentary here.