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Are Your Customers Part of Your Product Development Team?

Product developmentEvery entrepreneur wishes they were as prescient or creative as Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, or Larry Page and Sergey Brin, founders, respectively of Apple, Amazon and Google. That they could accurately predict or (in Jobs' case) dictate customer needs. Unfortunately, most entrepreneurs are just everyday schmos. But while they might not be able to predict needs or requirements, they do have a way to, at least, get a feeling for or anticipate customer needs.

How? From the customer themselves!

Think about it. Either most companies develop products that they "think" their customers or market need, or they let their ego believe that they "know" what their customers want because they, themselves, would use their product. Few entrepreneurs or small business owners involve their customers in the product development process. If you think about it, customer and market input is critical to a product's success. Unfortunately, most of that comes AFTER the product is completed and already being sold. Too late!!

Customers and market input should be an integral part of your product development process. That input in developing requirements and determining feature/function value is essential because, ultimately, they will be the buyers. And can I have a big DUH!

Why is it that so few companies engage their customers or solicit market advice when they're developing a new product?

Well, for one, sometimes even the brightest entrepreneurs are too smart for their good. Maybe they've introduced their first product and got a groundswell of positive reaction, or they've read Jobs' autobiography, studied how Facebook did it, admired how Google and Amazon continue to innovate ahead of the curve, thinking, hey, I'm a pretty smart guy also. I know what this market needs.

Maybe you are the next Jobs, Bezos or Zuckerberg. Doubtful. And that means if you are going to have any chance at long-term success with your product development you have to engage your customers and your market. Here are some ideas for how to best go about it:

Stay on top of your market.

Know where it's going and why. Subscribe to industry newsletters, blogs, etc. Be active in industry trade associations. Cultivate relationships and talk to industry leaders, even competitors (especially the larger ones) - they are usually free with their advice to young companies, especially about the market.

Create a Customer/User Group

No better way to learn how your customers and the market think about your business, no matter how small you are. Either encourage key customers to form one or set up an informal discussion group that meets periodically to talk about product issues. No love fests. No Kumbaya around the fire. Just frank, open discussion about current and future products.

Solicit and listen to customer feedback for existing products.

Survey often, especially, when you are about to develop a new product. You'll learn what mistakes you've made with your existing products so as not to repeat them with a new one. Nothing "softball." Ask hard questions and be ready for candid answers.

Get customer input throughout the development process, especially at the beginning.

Bring customers into the development process. Get them to sign an NDA (while it's simply precautionary, it gives them a sense of importance and gives credibility to what they are doing). Set up a series of meetings with a small group of customers (from the User Group if you have one) and the development team at various stages in the process. Solicit their critique and suggestions. And, for heaven's sake, listen to them!

"Beta users" - make it or break it!

Convince some or all of the review group of customers (as described in the previous idea) to be "beta users" of the product. Their role is to try to find the bugs and try to determine the great features and functions, which, of course, they had a hand in bringing to bear. Give them a deep discount for their efforts, and you win twice. You have an initial set of customers and some built-in references as well as direct and honest feedback that will help you hone the product to where it needs to be.

Customers and market input are essential to developing a product that the market will want to buy. Make the customer a part of your development team and process.

"The Entrepreneur's Yoda" knows these things. He's been there. May success be with you!

How much have your customers or your market been involved in your product development process? Please share your thoughts in your comments. It can help another entrepreneur.

If you like this post, by all means, share it with your networks and colleagues.

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