Recently at Automattic we’ve had a few people who have become interested in customer development: more specifically customer interviews and this makes me really excited. It’s something that I do all day long and I think it’s really valuable to the product and the company.
I’ve been heading up customer development for WooCommerce for a year and a half and it’s time for me to share some of my learnings. The first aspect of product management I want to talk about is customer development. More specifically: customer interviews and how you can get the most out of them. I have two different ways of interviewing customers and they’re both useful for getting different types of information.
When I need to know specific information about how or if our customers would even use a specific feature I ask a small group of people a series of questions that give me the real reason they might need a feature. I call these targeted interviews because you’re looking for several specific pieces of information.
I also make time for impromptu interviews whenever a customer says something unexpected. For example “Google Shopping brings in 30% of my traffic and I wouldn’t be here if you guys didn’t offer that extension”. All things considered this is a small extension and one we don’t really promote. When someone says something unexpected it’s an opportunity for you to challenge your assumptions and learn about your real product market fit.
The targeted interviews are what you often hear product people talking about. They’re straight forward to conduct and their return on investment is obvious. You can spend a couple hours interviewing customers to build the right feature or you can just build things and hope that you’re right.
One thing I do that really helps the interviews is to send out a survey to get some baseline information from a large number of people. When our customers started asking us for a point of sale integration we really had to narrow that down that could mean any one of a dozen different things.
- Do you want all WooCommerce payments to go through a POS system?
- Do you want products to somehow sync between both systems?
- Do you want to see your reporting all in one place?
Don’t Rule Anything Out
I’m a big fan of keeping surveys short. The shorter the are the more likely people are to finish them right? This makes sense but don’t rule anything out. It’s always useful to collect data and what’s impossible today might be trivial tomorrow.
This exact thing happened to us while researching Square. I didn’t include any questions about integrating payments because I looked through their API and it wasn’t possible. It wasn’t until months later when we opened up a discussion with Square that we found out it actually is possible and it’s the top request by their customers.
Now that you have data from a survey or two to give you a baseline it’s time to fill in the gaps. It’s especially useful if you can interview someone who’s already doing what you want to do. In our case there were a number of people who already use Square and have to manually sync information. It’s easy to talk to them and see their biggest pain points.
What do they really care about?
- Is it primarily inventory syncing?
- Seeing the reporting in one place?
- Or syncing product data (prices, descriptions, and images)?
From these interviews you can really understand people’s use cases and you can write thorough stories to cover each of these cases. And your surveys should help you prioritize the stories.
While targeted interviews are great for helping create a new feature; exploratory interviews help you understand your customers and feel out all of the edge cases. I love going to conferences and meeting our users. I can usually help them find something they’re looking for or I listen to their story and tell them how awesome it is they’re using our software. Sometimes though I heard a really unique use case or surprising use case and that’s when I’ll setup a Skype call where we can talk in depth.
I have a couple of questions in mind when I start the interview but these interviews tend to wander and that’s the point of them. It’s okay to let them wander. By wandering I’ve found out a lot of useful information:
- Why one of our users has spent 4-5K on custom development instead of buying one of our much cheaper products
- How one of our customers has a horrible experience taking phone orders
- Why customers sometimes use outdated software in conjunction with our software
- Where our customers get the perception about # of products and the speed of your site
None of the interviews started out this way. I was originally interviewing them about some of our features like Product Vendors, WooCommerce Subscriptions, & Storefront.
One of my favorite take aways was from the user who spent 4-5K on custom development. Not only did he not spend a dime with us but they never did any market research on their market and they didn’t know how to position themselves in his market yet they have been reading our blog for two years. And from that it’s obvious we need to revamp our marketing not just the product.
- Before you setup your store understand how you want to position yourself
- Before you customize your store with code did you know that we offer 300 extensions which do 99% of everything you’d ever want to do?
Find Your Blind Spots
The product management does a great a great job with targeted interviews. We find out what we need to know about feature X that we’ve been planning for a month. What the community isn’t quite as good at it is finding your blind spots.
It takes a bit of space in your schedule. Usually you’re busy doing something when one of those unusual cases walks right in front of you. Take the time to talk to these users and understand all the weird edge cases and holes that your users fall into.
Happy talking to your customers!
One of my favorite things to do is write. I love consolidating the jumble of thoughts in my head into something coherent that I can come back to whenever I want. Unfortunately, once the acquisition was announced I just stopped. I was busy, the acquisition was stressful, and I started doing a lot more writing internally on p2s (what Automattic uses to track projects).
From January through July I wrote 19 posts. And then from August through the end of the year just one. And this has had a significant impact on my traffic. I’ve always wanted to know how important it is to Google to consistently publish content and now I have some numbers to share. So if you’re thinking about scaling back your content marketing reading on.
It’s been a few months since I’ve written on my blog. It’s not because I didn’t have anything to say. There were a lot of things I wanted to talk about but I wanted to address the elephant in the room before I addressed smaller issues.
Just over a year ago I took on the role of product manager for WooCommerce. That means that I make sure we’re building the best possible software for our customers. I don’t think up features willy nilly. I read the same blogs & books as our customers, I listen to the same podcasts as our customers, I go to the same conferences, I evaluate e-commerce platforms to see what they’re doing and talking about, and I spend a lot of time talking to our customers.
I’ve successfully adopted the entrepreneur mindset which is great for my job. It means that I see an endless stream of opportunities. Every time I hear “It sucks that …”, “I wish that …”, or “Why does …” I know there’s space for a product or service and my mind starts turning about all of the ways to fill that gap. Could we build a piece of software to fix that? Could we create an e-course on this topic? Could we promote this service in some way?
This is a good thing. We’ve created a whole bunch of new features in WooCommerce based on these conversations and we’ve gotten more customers and made the existing customers happier. When WooThemes wasn’t interested in pursuing something I would do it on my own time. I’ve created & sold my own products. I’ve learned how to promote my products through content and I’ve learned how hard it can be to build and maintain a newsletter. These experiences gave me practical e-commerce knowledge instead of theory.
And then in May things changed. WooThemes was acquired by Automattic and we had new policies.
Aside from the uncertainty which appears anytime your life situation changes there was only one hurdle I had to cross. And that was the Conflict of Interest (COI) policy. I won’t repeat the whole thing here but suffice it to say that you can do just about anything as long as you don’t make money off of it. That means that I can’t write any more books, and I can’t create any new courses or plugins. I also had to open source or sell my existing plugins.
This is where the mindset & attitude I developed over the last couple years becomes a bit of a problem. I had assets that were generating a ton of revenue that only required occasional fixes and they had to be sold off. It was like asking me to give up free money.
Sigh. It’s just frustrating.
I’m not here to debate the policy. The policy is the policy and it’s here to stay. The only thing I can do is choose to accept it or to go out on my own. And I’m still here.
I want to give this a chance. Automattic is the top of the WordPress industry. There is no going higher. I’m working with some of the best people in the industry they are people who have passion and purpose. If you’ve ever read the book Drive you’d know that that’s all you really need.
I love small businesses and I love the idea that people can take care of themselves. That’s part of the reason I love WooCommerce so much. It’s technology that frees people from working for terrible companies. They can create their own product, work for themselves, and sell their creativity in any way they see fit.
I disagree with the policy. I think Automatticians know how to prioritize their job over their side projects and I think the benefits of side projects outweigh the negatives. But as much as I believe this; it doesn’t matter. The policy is the policy and you need to accept it or move on.
I’ve decided to push through this uncomfortable period. Not working is challenging for me right now. I’m so used to putting in 110% that it’s weird to have free time in the day. I’m going to take advantage of this free time. I’m going to get back into my hobbies, spend more time with friends, and spend more time with my partner. For better or worse this policy is forcing me to spend time taking care of myself which is maybe something I’ve left by the way side. Make no mistake this is very uncomfortable for me. But on occasion it’s good to be uncomfortable. How else are you supposed to grow?
I presented the Fundamentals of eCommerce at WordCamp Milwaukee 2015.
- What are you going to sell?
- Customer Lifetime Value (CLV)
- Cost of Acquisition (CoA)
- How are you going to get traction?
- Technical hurdles
- Order fulfillment
Last week I attended a conference and Derek Sivers, founder of CD Baby back in 1998, challenged the notion that businesses need to optimize for profit. What if instead they optimized for freedom? Or something else like fame? Why can’t someone choose those instead of profit? And why don’t people think about this before they start a business?
At WordCamp Denver I spoke about my blog. Specifically how it got my a job at WooThemes and a book deal.
I talk a lot about content because it’s how I drive traffic to my site. And while it can be a highly effective medium for driving traffic for certain industries it isn’t universal. There are plenty industries where it makes a lot more sense to drive traffic through more traditional means like paying for traffic.
Something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently is how I can help store owners succeed. WooCommerce doesn’t have every imaginable feature but it is complete enough for a huge number of store owners. What I mean by that is that in terms of functionality WooCommerce is a very viable option. Newsletters – check, bundles – check, subscriptions – check, tracking numbers for shipping, check; you get the idea.
The problem for many store owners isn’t a lack of features it’s that they don’t know how to run an e-commerce business. And that’s no slight against them. Do you add intelligent recommendations or do you write blog posts to bring in more traffic?
There’s no right answer and no guide that can give you all of the answers. You have to learn how to run your e-commerce business. Learning from other businesses is great but you have run your own experiments and see what works for you.
While I can’t give you the perfect e-commerce quick start guide what I can do right now is tell you what not to do.
After attending LoopConf and learned all that I could about WordPress development I took the next day off and played a game of ping pong with some friends. There was the guy who’s really good at hitting the ball fast so you have to play really far back, the guy who taps the ball over the net so you have to dive towards the table, the guy who’s good with placement so you have to run from side to side to return the ball, and the guy who plays aggressively and smashes the ball with every opportunity. And then there was me the guy who has a very basic serve and very basic technique.
So who do you think won? Maybe the guy who was really good at placing the ball? Or the guy who hit it really fast?