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Guest Blogger: Chris Beall | April 19, 2012

5 Ways Customer Conversations Can Help Avert a Product Disaster

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One hundred years ago, Titanic launched. Three days later, she sank, taking precious lives and treasure to an icy grave.

In hindsight, saving the ship should have been easy. The captain and crew needed to listen to warnings from nearby ships, communicate more honestly among themselves, and turn hard to port before it was too late. But the main thing they needed wasn't to be invented for 27 years: radar to see dangerous icebergs miles away through the fog.

What does the Titanic tragedy have in common with launching a B2B product? Lots.

The most obvious similarity is that product launches fail far too often. The usual suspects--missing features, being too early or late to market, and not having a big enough launch budget--are generally innocent. The real culprit is lack of timely, accurate, and actionable information about what customers really want, and how they need it delivered.

Like a ship sailing in waters with hidden hazards, a product launch needs radar, too; business radar. Business radar is made of up the hundreds of conversations required to chart a true course through the fog of competitive chatter, conventional wisdom, and expert opinion.

Here are five ways that having lots of candid customer conversations will make the difference between smooth sailing and a shipwreck.

1. Provide unvarnished feedback directly to the product team. Your engineers and product managers should listen in on lots of sales calls to hear prospects' needs, objections, and concerns firsthand. The voice of the customer needs to be just that: a human voice, emotions and all--not a dry collection of feature descriptions and feedback scores.

2. Learn the critical details, not just the big picture. Conversations are the most efficient way to learn key details about how your new product fits your customers' needs. Even if you miraculously got every feature right, a successful launch depends on understanding the needs of the people who will buy, approve, implement, integrate, roll out, and scale up your product. If you aren't talking to them, you are reduced to hoping that nothing goes wrong. What are the odds?

3. Get the message right. Don't brainstorm it to death; actually test different messages in live conversations with real prospects. And don't rely on mere data. Personally listen in on a dozen pitches for each message to get a firsthand feel for what resonates and what falls flat. Keep the good stuff, throw the junk overboard, and repeat.

4. Start the launch well before the product is "done." Time is not your friend. Don't wait until the iceberg is on top of you; develop the product and customers in parallel. Get your intellectual property protection in place early and connect with prospective customers as soon as you have something to talk about. When product is ready to ship, your pipeline should be full of potential deals that will give you the traction needed to quickly transition from promising launch to concrete results.

5. Secure the right first customers. Some customers are great to have aboard and some are no better than stowaways. Don't sell to just anyone with a pulse. Talk to so many prospects that you can select the best customers who not only need your product, but really "get it" and will commit to making it work for them.

Launching a new product is exciting, but no product is unsinkable. Mess up anything--key features, message, target market, business model, price, delivery, or timing--and a promising launch can quickly turn into an epic disaster. Analysis and planning helps, but there is no substitute for the reliable real-time information that comes from customer conversations. Invest in the people, processes, and technology to have those conversations and you should learn enough to make your product king of the world. Sure beats ending up on the bottom with the rest of the wrecks.

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About the Author: Chris Beall is vice president of Products at ConnectAndSell.

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