How Do You Really Get Useful Customer Feedback

Businessman whispers to his colleague in office about gossip, rumor, or secrets.

There are some meetings that are so impactful that you never forget them, even 20 years later. And this throwaway meeting that Thomas and I had at Tellabs years ago definitely was one for the books.

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Thomas was the most senior applications engineer in my organization, and I really enjoyed meeting customers with him. Thomas would do the heavy lifting of answering the detailed technical questions the customer might have, and then I could sit back, observe, and add in if necessary.

The thing I loved about working this way was I was free to listen intently to what a customer was saying without having to worry about managing the conversation. It’s a great way to work when you’re trying to get useful customer feedback for your products.

The Tellabs meeting, as I said earlier, was a throwaway. We were having the meeting as a favor to the sales organization. The Tellabs engineer had some sort of problem with our product that didn’t make any sense, so I wasn’t very hopeful that we would learn anything useful to define our next generation of products.


There are three basic questions you should always ask every customer.


Worse yet, it was February in Chicago, where Tellabs headquarters was. That meant it was miserably cold and grey.

The night before, we had to wait over an hour in the cold for the local sales person, the same person that asked us to meet with Tellabs, to pick us up at O’hare. The salesperson didn’t even bother apologizing for being late. Needless to say, I wasn’t happy.

So, Thomas and I, the next morning, trudged into Tellabs office in Naperville, cold and unhappy, wondering why the customer was having a mysterious problem with the power consumption of our product. It was especially baffling because our product (a “CDR," which stands for Clock and Data Recovery) was the lowest power product on the market by a significant amount.

One of the basic questions I always like asking customers is, “What do you dislike about our product?” (I also like asking, “What do like about our product?” and “What would you like to see us do next?”). The reason I like asking these open ended questions is, if the customer is open, you’ll learn a ton about how a customer really feels about your product or service.

I said to Thomas, “Well, at least we know he doesn’t like the power consumption, so that’s something.”


Your customers aren’t always right.


We walking into the conference room, and the engineer came in a few minutes later. He got right to the point.

“Your part uses way too much power,” he exclaimed. “It’s burning up my backplane!”

Thomas said, “Your backplane? But it only uses 230mW of power. That shouldn’t be causing a problem.”

“I’m using 24 of them on each card,” the engineer said. “And, I’ve got 16 cards on each rack. Now do you see my problem!”

Something still didn’t add up. This wasn’t the typical application the product was intended to be used in. What was this guy really trying to do?

I jumped in, and asked the obvious question, “How are using the part?”

“I’m moving data from card to card,” he said.

“You know that not how the part was intended to be used,” Thomas said.

“I know,” he answered, “but I didn’t have an alternative.”


You need to listen carefully to what a customer is really trying to tell you.


Thomas and I each realized why the customer was having a problem. More importantly, we realized there was a huge opportunity for us.

“When are you going to production?” I asked the engineer.

“I’ll be going to production July of next year,” he said.

“Okay, I want to be really honest with you,” I said. “There’s not much we can do today to help you.

“The part you’re using is overkill, and we don’t have a direct solution for what you’re doing. However, we might have something that could help you early next year.

“Would you be willing to work with us on the product definition? In return, we’ll give you beta samples you can use later this year?”

The engineer nodded his head and said yes.


Your customers don’t understand the capabilities your company has.


We left the meeting, and our sales person drove us back to O’hare. After we passed through security, I said to Thomas, “I think this could be huge.”

“I agree,” Thomas said. “But he doesn’t need a CDR designed to receive fiber optic data. He needs a simple transmitter and receiver that operates over a backplane.”

“I know. It’s a whole new category of device that no one’s done. We should be able to cut the power significantly be reducing the functionality.

“That’s why I think this could be huge.”

Indeed, it was huge. A $100 million/year business was born from that one meeting.

As a product definer, this is what I lived for. Greenfield opportunities like this don’t come along every day, so, when they do, you have to take advantage of them.


The skill of getting value from customer feedback is in the interpretation of the information you’re getting.


It seems so simple, doesn’t it. All we had to do was ask the engineer a few questions, and a huge opportunity was uncovered.

Asking good questions isn’t the skill you need to win at the game of customer feedback. Anyone can talk to customers and survey them. That’s only the entry fee.

The skill is asking yourself questions and interpreting it correctly, “Why? Why is the customer saying this? What are they really telling us?”

The “relationship status” scene in The Social Network does a brilliant job of showing this:

As I said, it seems obvious, but it’s not. You have to have a combination of curiosity and insight in order to do be really skilled at utilizing market intelligence and customer feedback.

I’d argue that amongst Steve Jobs many skills, his ability to envision a world that didn’t yet exist was his greatest skill. If you get to 10% of where Jobs got to, you’ll be doing just fine.


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