This is the twelfth in a series of posts on Practical Product Management Rules from Pragmatic Marketing.
Pragmatic Marketing Rule #12: The answer to most of the questions is not in the building.
When I first began working at Genuity, a temporarily high-flying Internet Services Provider of the dot.com era, I was struck by the fact that rank and file marketing people rarely had access to customers and prospects. I came to Genuity from a small software company, where I had regularly gone on sales calls, spoke with customers frequently, and, in general, spent a fair amount of time poking around outside the building.
Genuity - at $1B a year in revenues (and losses) - was quite a bit larger than Softbridge, which in our last full year as an independent company did about $7M in business. At Softbridge, we all wore multiple hats. As VP of Marketing, I ran (and sometimes was) product marketing, marcomm, and product management). At Genuity, I just did product marketing. And product marketing just didn't get all that many opportunities to get out in the field.
In my three years there, I went on a handful of calls. Our sales model was multi-layered, and there were often 3-4 folks from sales alone on a call. No room in that clown car for another body! If sales brought another body along, it was typically a technical expert or a product manager.
I participated in many events, speaking on behalf of Genuity, and thus was able to have some engagement with customers and prospects, but it was limited. I also met with some regularity with industry analysts - another good source of insight and info. But I really craved customer and prospect interaction that I just wasn't getting enough of.
Several times I created customer surveys, but I was not allowed to speak with customers directly - I had to go through multiple layers of the customer support organization.
All in all, it meant for a very high frustration level in which I always felt I had my nose pressed up against the window glass, able to see but not communicate with the customers on the other side.
Fortunately, I developed good relationships with enough of the technical sales folks and sales engineers to get my questions answered, but it was not really the same as building good relationships with customers, or hearing first hand what prospects were saying.
You really do need to get out of the building to truly understand how people use your products and services, to appreciate the benefits they derive from them. You need to get out there to see what parts of your message customers respond to - and what parts draw blanks - or leave them cold.
Obviously, you also need to get out to gauge what's happening in the economy and technology in general, and with your industry, your market, and your competition in particular. (Some of this intelligence you pick up by being out and about with customers and prospects. But fortunately, even if you don't have access to them, you can still get this information, you can still find an awful lot out. [For purposes of this argument, let's assume that purposeful wandering around the Internet counts for getting out of the building.])
None of this is to say that there's not important "stuff" that you can and should find out within your own four walls. There are definitely people who know things within those walls, and you should know who they are - and how to tap their minds. But, when it comes to it, there's really only one question that can only be answered inside the building, and that's "how does it work?"