Find the problem behind the question

If you want to be a bad product manager, answer customer comments or questions and be on your way. When customers email you with a question about a certain feature that doesn’t exist in your product, reply nicely that it doesn’t but you’ll consider it, or, better yet, explain why it doesn’t. If someone stops by your booth at a trade show and asks about a certain capability you’ve built in, ensure them that your product has full support. If an upset customer posts a distressing message to a mailing list or their blog, work quickly to post a detailed and clear response that negates their complaints. You need to make sure you provide good customer service, which means politely responding to any suggestions for changes or enhancements as promptly as possible, usually through a “thanks for your suggestion” form letter. (You don’t have time to respond to each of these personally — you’ve got a product to run after all!)

If you want to be a good product manager, treat every point of contact with a customer as an opportunity to learn more. Responding to emails, answering questions at trade shows, and posting replies online is not necessarily bad in and of itself, it’s just the bare minimum level of customer service that is expected. Do you want to be known as the product/company that just does the bare minimum?

More importantly, these touch points represent a huge opportunity to understand customer needs better and work to turn your harshest critics into your biggest promoters. Engage these customers in a two-way dialogue rather than crafting a response that will end the discussion.

The next time a customer emails you a suggestion, rather than responding with a polite thank you, email them back to learn more about the reason behind the suggestion. Better yet, call them. Invite them into the office, or offer to meet with them in person to discuss more. Learn about how they use your product, what they like and dislike, and where the idea came from. Make sure to thank them in return, sending a small gift in appreciation, and let them know you really do value their input. Keep their information on file and follow up with them when you need more feedback in the future, or if you make changes to the product based on their suggestions. Imagine how special that customer will feel and how much more likely they will be to recommend your product now compared to before they emailed you, not to mention compared to how they would have felt had you responded with a form letter or not responded at all!
This can be especially effective with customers who are upset and actively expressing their discontent to other current and potential customers. It can take some effort, and is not always effective, but if done properly it can be a great way of not just winning back distressed users but having them help promote your product to others.

Good product management is about finding the questions that customers didn’t think to ask. Any company can respond to inquiries, but you need to identify the reasons behind those inquiries. The more context you can build, the more you will learn that will help you to improve your product.

An example: recently a customer emailed about a certain feature of our product. It seemed as though she was intending to use it in a way it wasn’t designed for a purpose which was unclear. First instinct was to reply that (a) the feature was designed for a different purpose, and (b) the task she was trying to do wasn’t supported by our software (because our research had shown that it was rarely if ever done).

However, what intrigued me more was reason behind her question — why was she trying to accomplish this task? I soon realized there was a deeper question/problem that she was attempting to solve, but that wasn’t immediately clear from her initial email. We were able to work with her on that deeper and much more important issue and address it, which never would have come up had I just answered her question at face value.

Over on the IdeaScope blog, they call these Million Dollar Ideas:

Treat every customer’s ideas as if they are lottery tickets, scratch below the surface and see if you can find a million dollars. … From your company’s perspective, maybe you should dig a little deeper. Even with bad ideas. If you just ask, “Why is that important?”, you might be able to reveal an underlying problem with your product that all customers are suffering from. Or better yet, you might find that there is a whole new market for your product. Sometimes the original idea leads you to a better understanding of customer needs, and then you find an inexpensive solution that this priceless in value to the customers. Treat your pool of ideas as if there is a “million dollar idea” hidden in the stack, you just have to find it. There could be more than one; its kind-of like lottery tickets, the more you have, the better your chances of winning.

Treat all customer interactions as a chance to find these million dollar ideas. Go above and beyond what the customer expects and you will find that the extra time it takes compared to sending a form letter response is well worth the effort.