I had an opportunity to meet with Treb Ryan, co-founder and CEO of OpSource, last week. I was curious to get his views on customer enlightenment, and hear how his product development team engaged with customers. Over the years Treb has devised an organic development process that seems to work well for his engineers. He was kind to share his views with me.
Know Thy Customers: In-Context Learning
Treb believes that good products are internally inspired (based on one’s experiences) and externally validated (through customer feedback). He’s a firm believer that founders need domain expertise in order to build successful ventures. He advises young entrepreneurs to get a job in the industry they are trying to serve before starting a venture. He gave me the example of healthcare, where a lot of IT companies fail, due to a lack of actual healthcare expertise.
Treb also believes that feedback is best obtained by listening to customers “in context”. [Which resonates strongly with Customer Enlightenment principles]. Towards that end, he has his product engineers regularly sit in sales calls, customer service calls, and customer training sessions, to hear customer problems first hand.
It’s a great way for engineers to learn about customer problems. They can hear what questions customers ask, what works and what doesn’t. After speaking to 15+ customers, they often start to see common themes and problems emerge, and can bring this feedback to improve our products.Our head of product development is particularly skilled at this; he goes on a lot of customer calls, and brings back phenomenal insights.
I asked Treb if this process also applied to new products, or only to existing products. Interestingly, he said that the process had been useful to steer the company’s direction as well. He gave me the example of their SaaS delivery product. OpSource saw an unfulfilled need in the market, and spoke to 50+ customers to validate their assumptions and tailor product requirements accordingly.
Overcoming the Discomfort Barrier
I wanted to dig a little further, to understand what made Treb’s head of product development so effective, when technologists are often challenged when dealing with customers.
Engineers are typically insular in dealing with problems. They like to solve problems on their own, and are not big on social interactions. As a result they shy away from engaging with customers. And if/when they engage, they follow a stilted process that does not yield great results.
So does Treb’s head of product development have a knack for social interactions then? Treb said that he didn’t have a particular knack, but because he’s very knowledgeable, customers like to talk to him, and he has good listening skills.
What works in his case is that he’s not the one running the meetings, or having to lead with questions. His main role is to listen. And in the context of listening to real world customer problems, he’s able to glean valuable insights about our customers’ needs. When a customer mentions a problem, he may then intervene and ask: “If we were to do this, would that solve your problem? Would you pay for it?”
Good insights from Treb. OpSource has found an effective approach for getting engineers to engage with customers, without the unease of having to lead with questions. This approach has paid bottom-line dividends in OpSource’s business.