When is a Feature Request a Customer Requirement?

We were touring customers with a new software product.  I handled the technical issues and the demonstration; he handled the commercial and sales issues.  Half way through one demonstration he interrupted me; “come on, let’s go” he said, “why?” I asked, “because I’ve talked to the guy who runs the joint and they don’t have any money; we’re wasting our time”.  We left.

One demonstration was particularly bizarre.  Nigel had fought hard to get us into this key customer, but when we got there the set up was not ideal.  The computer was in a machine room and the cable to my graphics tablet was only long enough to reach the corner of the demo room.  The keyboard and mouse where by the screen 6ft away.  We agreed Nigel would operate those and I’d use the tablet.  In the other corner, one of the artists that we needed to demo to was fast asleep on a sofa.

It wasn’t the slickest demo, but the young artists who had gathered to see it were pretty enthusiastic.  As the demo progressed the questions came thick and fast; “show me this”, “can you do that”, to which my answer was always; “sure, like this?”.  Even the guy asleep on the sofa had woken up and was paying attention. 

Eventually I got a question that stumped me.  “No”, I said with some hesitation, “we can’t do that, why would you want to?”,  “I don’t” came the reply, “I just wondered that’s all and I wanted to hear you say ‘no’”.  His problem was that he was starting to doubt our presentation because we’d said “yes” too many times and he needed to find the boundaries of what our product could do.  So “no” was really helpful.

As Product Managers it is most challenging to be stumped by a question because it suggests that we are leaving familiar territory and about to head out into the unknown.  We have to slip out of sales mode and rediscover our childish inquisitiveness.  “Why the heck would they want to do that?” we ask ourselves, and if we ask our customers, they are only too happy to explain.  We can then get into a real conversation about what they are trying to achieve that would require this feature.  It may lead to an innovative new feature, it may lead to an exciting new product, or maybe not. 

The problem for many sales people is that they see having to say “no” as a real blocker to the sales process, rather than an opportunity to engage the customer.  They are likely to report back to base on this new feature that is a “must have” for this customer if they are to buy.  Pretty soon we’re committing resources and changing schedules in order to meet this critical new customer requirement.

A shame when the customer just wanted to hear “No, we’re real, we’re honest, it’s cool.”