user conference

It seems like an obvious thing — why wouldn’t product managers want to do customer interviews at user conferences? The simple answer is that most teams do not take the time and effort to plan an effective customer interview program at their user conferences. Product managers receive a lot of feedback during user conferences. Unfortunately the feedback is scattered, not well structured, or consistently documented. The usual result is a set of anecdotes collected from a small subset of customers. It is hard to turn feedback can into actionable intelligence. Product managers should do customer interviews in a structured process at user conferences.

Why Customer Interviews are Important

Talking to the market is a foundational skill for product managers. Colleen Tiner, SVP Product Management at Beeliner noted in an article for the Pragmatic Institute:

About 2 years ago, my product management team at Beeline, a flexible workforce solution provider, was struggling with two challenges: development and product management were not aligned and the sales team resisted product-management involvement in post-decision research.

When I brought this up after a training session with Pragmatic Institute’s Jim Foxworthy, he said, “You have an issue with credibility, and credibility comes from the market, not from your product managers.” Right then and there he asked me to erase everything on my whiteboard and write “N-I-H-I-T-O.” He paused, pointed to the word and said, “This is the only thing you or your team should worry about.”

NIHITO, I knew from the training class means “nothing important happens in the office.” You must get out and talk directly to your market—regularly. We had become trapped in the cycle of inside-out thinking. We were also trying to do too much at once on the Pragmatic Institute Framework. It was time to rethink our strategy. We needed to pause and become a data-driven organization.

According to an article from Adobe’s

Fully 95% of companies say they regularly listen to their customers. Of these, 84% regularly ask customers for feedback, while 11% do so occasionally. Yet despite this widespread collection of customer feedback, only 29% of firms with VoC in place systematically incorporate insights about customer needs into their decision-making processes.

According to Aberdeen companies with effective Voice of the Customer programs significantly outperform their peers:

VoC Program benefits

Online Surveys Are Easy, Why Do Interviews?

Online surveys are a very common technique for gathering customer feedback. Consumers rate everything from Uber rides to their recent experience at the doctor’s office. There are two challenges with online surveys. The first is response rate. Online surveys only have a 29% response rate according to a benchmark study by SurveyAnyplace:

Survey Response Rates

The second challenge is that online surveys offer a limited set of responses and a relatively fixed path through the questions. An interviewer can ask follow on questions and delve into why an interviewee holds a particular opinion. Being able to adapt to the specific situation in each interview is the strength of personal interviews versus online surveys.

Recruiting Interview Participants is Hard

One of the major reasons product managers do not do a lot of customer interviews is that it is hard to get individuals to commit to a 30-minute interview. Generally, teams use a portfolio of techniques to gain interview commitments: personal phone calls from sales reps, emails based on CRM data, and even telemarketing. We have been doing customer interview market research projects for years and have developed the following benchmarks:

The sad reality is that most customer research projects stall out when teams have difficulty recruiting interviewees.

User Conferences

User conferences are a great opportunity to jump-start a customer interview program. There are several benefits:

Captive Audience

At a user conference, you have a captive audience of customers. They have already demonstrated their interest in your solutions by investing in the conference. The typical excuse of ‘I’m too busy to do an interview’ evaporates. The question becomes more of ‘I’m already here, why not do an interview.’ Experience has shown that if you offer a reasonable incentive (a $50 Amazon or Visa gift card) you end up with more potential interviews than you can handle.

Leverage Conference Promotion & Notifications

Your company is already making a significant investment in the promotion of the conference. You can leverage that investment by including a pitch about participating in an interview session in exchange for a gift card.

Ability to Structure the Discussions

One of the largest benefits is your ability to use a structured interview to explore all the topics you are interested in. Instead of relying upon vague recollections of anecdotes, you can have a statistically valid set of responses in the customer’s actual words. Good interview programs have clear research objectives. Interview questions are designed to directly support the objectives. The questions can be tailored for each customer persona. Net new customers get one set of questions, existing customers who upgraded/expanded another. Customers that did not proceed with a purchase can get questions tailored to their situation.

Downside – Few Prospects

The only downside to doing customer interviews at user conferences is that you will probably not get the chance to interview a lot of prospects that decided not to buy a solution from your company. While there may be a few prospects at the conference the likelihood they will commit to an interview is low.

What Would a User Conference Customer Interview Program Look Like?

Successful customer interview programs require effort. In general, most programs have four major phases:

product manager user conference interview process

Project Preparation

In the first phase of the project, the preparatory work required to ensure the success of the project is performed. This includes:

  • Conducting a Project Kickoff Meeting
  • Drafting and approving project support materials (project plan, research objectives, interview questions, project schedule)
  • Conducting informational briefings for interviewers (Marketing, Product Management & Sales)

Recruit Interviewees

Emails to confirmed conference attendees are sent prior to the conference to solicit potential interviewees as a part of the normal conference promotion activities. A series of up to three emails will be sent. A $25 – $50 Amazon or Visa gift card can be used as an incentive to encourage conference attendees to commit to the interviews. The gift card will be sent once the interview has been completed. Included in the email solicitation will be a link that attendees can use to schedule and book their interviews.

If the target number of interviews has not been committed prior to the start of the conference an announcement about the program interviews can be made early in the conference along with the gift card offer.

The major tasks in this phase include:

  • Drafting and approving interview recruitment emails and email sequences
  • Drafting and producing a flyer that can be distributed in conference attendee packages
  • Drafting and scheduling the announcement of the Voice of the Customer interview program at the conference
  • Executing the email solicitation process

Conduct Interviews

The core activity of the project will be to conduct the interviews. Prior to the conference reminders will be sent to reconfirm the interview time and place. The interviews will be conducted in a private location that is convenient for the attendees. With the interviewee’s consent, the discussions can be recorded and later transcribed. After the interview is completed a thank you email is sent that contains the incentive gift card. The major tasks in this phase include:

  • Send interview reminder emails
  • Confirm interview location logistics
  • Conduct interviews
  • Transcribe interviews
  • Send thank you email and incentive gift card

Final Report

In the last phase of the project, the results of the interviews will be analyzed and an overall report will be prepared. The report includes the transcripts of the interviews. It will surface the major themes discovered during the interviews, supported by actual customer quotes.

Closing the Loop

Once the conference is completed product managers should take the next step to institutionalize customer interviews in their organizations. Post Decision Interviews should be incorporated into your regular sales playbook. Once a particular deal has reached the opportunity stage (the customer has expressed a desire to purchase a solution in a specific time frame), the sales team should introduce the concept of a post-decision interview. Both your company and the customer will be investing time and effort once the deal has reached the opportunity stage. It is not unreasonable to ask that in exchange for your efforts that the customer agrees to do a post-decision interview. In many government procurement processes post decision conferences are the norm. You should ask the prospect to extend your company the same courtesy.

Also published on Medium.

By John Mecke

John is a 25 year veteran of the enterprise technology market. He has led six global product management organizations for three public companies and three private equity-backed firms. He played a key role in delivering a $115 million dividend for his private equity backers – a 2.8x return in less than three years. He has led five acquisitions for a total consideration of over $175 million. He has led eight divestitures for a total consideration of $24.5 million in cash. John regularly blogs about product management and mergers/acquisitions.