Obsess Over the Customer Problem

Amazon has a famous obsession: “Start with the customer and work backwards.” But how does this actually work?

As Jeff Bezos describes:

The #1 thing that has made us successful by far is obsessive-compulsive focus on the customer as opposed to obsession over the competitor.

There are many advantages to a customer-centric approach, but here’s the big one: customers are always beautifully, wonderfully dissatisfied, even when they report being happy and business is great.

That’s why one of the PM principles is “Obsess over the customer problem.” Identifying a real customer problem to solve is the first and most important step towards building a successful product. To identify a customer problem, you need to answer three questions:

  1. What is the customer problem?

  2. How do we know that this is a problem?

  3. Why is it critical that we solve this problem?

1. What is the customer problem?

Understanding the problems that your customers face is very much an exercise in empathy. Start by researching who your customers are and putting yourself in their shoes. What is your customer trying to accomplish? What’s on her mind and how is she feeling? What’s the underlying problem that she’s struggling with?

Rather than work on these questions by yourself, hold a team brainstorm to collect everyone’s intuitions about your customer. During the brainstorm, check to see if people feel an emotional connection to the customer. You know you’re on the right track when your team feels the customer’s pain and wants badly to help. Here are notes from a sample brainstorm meeting:

Who is the customer?
Jane is a working mom with 2 kids at home.

What is the customer trying to accomplish?
She just finished work and needs to buy groceries to cook dinner for her family.

What is the customer journey?
Brainstorm what the customer is feeling, thinking and doing each step along the way:

What is the underlying customer problem?
Today, working professionals don’t have the time or mental energy to shop for groceries and cook dinner for their families after work.

When crafting the problem statement as a team, avoid these common pitfalls:

  1. Product adoption is not a customer problem. Customers don’t care if “metrics are declining” or “people aren’t using the product.” Frame the problem from the customer perspective.

  2. Always start with the end customer’s perspective. Even if you build products for other internal teams, you should understand how it benefits your end customer.

  3. Writing down the problem doesn’t mean that you’re done. You need to do the work to understand if this is a real problem that many of your customers share.

In fact, this first step is just a hypothesis. You can’t actually answer this question without working on question two.

2. How do we know that this is a problem?

Understanding if the customer problem exists is hard work. This work could include:

  1. Talking to at least five customers about the problem.

  2. Diving into existing metrics and research about the problem.

  3. Discussing the problem with experts in your organization (e.g. user research, support).

  4. Running a simple A/B test to validate if the problem exists.

  5. Researching competitors to understand how they’re tackling the problem.

During this process, you may find that what you think is a problem doesn’t exist. Or you may find that customers have a bigger pain point that you should solve instead. This is great because your goal is not just to solve any problem, it’s to solve your customer’s most important problem. Usually, this is a problem that many people share, but that doesn’t mean that it’ll be easy to identify. If you work on a mobile app for example, you might get complaints from power users about receiving too many push notifications. But is that the right problem to prioritize or do most users get no notifications at all?

Too many people just write down what they think is a customer problem and jump directly to finding a solution.

Don’t make that mistake. Take the time to validate that your customer problem exists.

3. Why is it critical that we solve this problem?

Now that you understand the customer problem, shift your attention towards your company. How will solving this problem help your company achieve its mission and grow its metrics? We’ll discuss this more in my book Principles of Product Management.


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