Posted by: Ivan lybbert | September 18, 2009

You’re Smarter Than Your Customer

smarty pantsYou are smarter than your customer.  What? Did I write that?  You bet I did, and I’ll say it again.  You, the Product Manager, are SMARTER than your customer!

Before I begin, I have to thank Haig Sakouyan for his comment on my blog last week for this idea.  In my challenge to state what we do in 25 words or less, he said “Product Manager’s listen to what customer’s think the problems are, figure out what the real problems and then works to solve them.”  There were many great responses (some of which will show up in future blogs), but this comment turned me on my head for a second.  To state that product managers listen to what customer’s THINK the problem is, and then figure out the REAL problem sounded a little blasphemous.  The customer is ALWAYS right…right?  At first glance it didn’t sit well with me, like someone parting my hair on the wrong side of my head!  But after some thought, I realized he is right.

When I was in first grade, I had a friend who always had the best toys.  So, naturally, I always went to his to house play!  Among other things, he had GI Joes (with the Kung Fu Grip!), a Stretch Armstrong, piles of Matchbox cars, and a box (well, a tube) of Tinker Toys.  We had great fun having Tinker Toy competitions to see who could make the coolest building, car, or anything!  Well, the next Christmas, I also received a set of Tinker Toys, and I was thrilled.  Now I could practice my building skills before our competitions!    The next time I went to his house I brought over a newly constructed Tinker Toy car and showed it with pride.  He then showed me a car he built with a new set of toys called Lego Blocks.  His was infinitely better!  You could actually PLAY with his, whereas mine suddenly looked odd and fragile.

Before I saw his Lego car, if someone asked me for the best way to build a car, my response would have been limited to the framework of what I knew about Tinker Toys.  But if someone asked him, his response would have the framework of Tinker Toys AND Lego’s.  Call it what you want, paradigm shift, different frame of reference, whatever.  He knew something I didn’t.  And as a Product Manager, if you’re doing your job right, then you know something your customers don’t.

As product managers, we have to listen to the customer.  I mean REALLY listen.  Once we understand their pain points, and can communicate them back to show our understanding, THEN we can work our magic.  While the customer envisions how the new product will function, it’s only based on what they know about your product (or a competitor’s product).  You should have the advantage of knowing where the product is going, what the market needs, and what your company does best.  Work until you have all the information.   Then you’ll be the kung-fu master, and your customer is the young grasshopper!  Ok, so maybe I went too far there.  But you get the point.

Remember, as a Product Manager you are in a unique position because you (should) have all collective information to help you determine the best direction for your product.  Now, dont get a fat head about it!  Just have confidence in yourself, and go sell your ideas to the rest of your company.  Before you know it, you’ll be making the best Lego cars out there.



  1. Good post and commentary. Your comment, “As product managers, we have to listen to the customer. I mean REALLY listen” should resonate with everyone.

    We have to find the time to get out of the office, set aside a block of time to connect (it can be by phone) without interruptions and really listen.

    A rule for all of us, LISTENING means that we are not talking, we are taking notes, fully engaged and absorbing what the customer is TRYING to tell us. If there are questions or information need clarification, we need to hold those for an appropriate time and then talk.

    • You’re right Jim! I find it that people’s ability to listen correctly is based on their center of the universe. When I was younger, the world revolved around my head, which meant listening was looking for information that validated my universe. With maturity I’ve learned that listening is trying to understand THEIR UNIVERSE… Putting myself in their shoes and understanding their pain can be difficult, but unless we do, we’re not really listening.

      Thanks for the great comment…

  2. Ivan, great post!!!! But I wouldn’t expect anything less from you. You have a great writing style. The best product managers are students and historians of their industry. It’s important to understand the reference points of the end user. It enables the product manager to put context into the product and not allow the propeller heads to interject a frame of reference that does not belong. Please keep writing…..

    • Mike, it is always a pleasure to hear from you, especially here on my blog! You’re one of the brightest people I know, so I appreciate your comments and insight. Thanks for your vote of confidence…

  3. Ivan, thank you for the mention. I enjoyed the post and I couldn’t agree with you more. :-)

    Keep up the blog, enjoying it.

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