Customer intimacy requires that you blur the lines between you and your customers. It requires that you share your strategy with your customers, become part of their community, and develop enduring collaborations. It requires that you become so well known to each other that you can finish each other’s sentences as if you were a long-married couple.

Share Your Strategy

A well-run development program isn’t enough to ensure a market winner. You have to commit yourself every step of the way to validate market needs and how customers will respond to your new products. The products that customers buy are those that solve their problems the best, whether those are your products or the products of the competition. That means you’ll need to score a bull’s-eye on

  • Roadmap alignment,
  • Product performance targets,
  • Product design, and
  • Design implementation.

Hitting the center of the target at product launch depends on how well you validated your strategy with target customers on all four elements.

Roadmap Alignment

Roadmaps are used to describe the products that you intend to create over time. You need customer feedback on your roadmaps to ensure that they are aligned with your customers’ future requirements. Similarly, customers want suppliers to share their plans for the future so that they can

  • Be sure that you’ll be able to meet their requirements,
  • Learn about new profit-generating opportunities, and
  • Understand options for addressing their issues.

Feedback on your roadmaps will produce insight into your customers’ strategies, goals, and challenges. That insight gets you closer to your customers and can lead to new ideas for creating value. Roadmap alignment is an ongoing process that will create a steady stream of input for your product strategy. You constantly need to evaluate and reconcile market feedback to identify capability and timing requirements for your company’s new products.

Product Performance Targets

Your validated roadmap will eventually spawn the need to develop an MRD to make a business case and outline performance targets for a specific new product. You need to ensure that you’ve set new-product targets that will meet customer requirements and win their business. In this step, get specific about requirements and timing. Think of this as high-resolution roadmap validation.

To test the “win their business” part, you need to share your vision for value and competitive advantage. This includes your value proposition, expected pricing, and the market positions that you will take. In this step, you are essentially asking your target customers, “If I build a product that does these things, at this time, and at this price, would you buy from me?”

Product Design

As soon as design concepts for your new product are ready, it’s time to make sure that your customers will embrace engineering’s interpretation of how to meet product requirements.

Share design concepts with your target customers to learn what they like and don’t like, and why. If your engineers are faced with design trade-off decisions, it’s a good idea to share these with your customers as well. Ask them what choices they would make and why.

Design Implementation

Of course, what really matters is product performance in the customers’ environment. In this step, ship a preproduction or beta system to select customers for evaluation and feedback before full production shipments begin.

Become Part of Your Customer’s Community

Consider this: In your own company, you’re part of a community. It’s made up of the people you work with. You interact with them every day. It’s sustained. With each interaction, you get to know the other community members better. You develop intimacy. You learn

  • What their needs are,
  • How they define their own success,
  • How you can help them,
  • How they can help you, and
  • How to improve the way you work together.

These are the exact same things you need to know about your market to develop and articulate a compelling value proposition. To learn them, you need frequent and varied interactions with your customer’s community. Your customer’s community includes

  • People in your customer’s organization,
  • Your customer’s customers,
  • Your customer’s other suppliers,
  • Industry groups,
  • Industry analysts, and
  • Your competitors.

You need to be an active member of this community. Get to know all the community’s members. Be a resource to them. Use them as resources. Being an active member of your customer’s community includes the following:

  • Meeting and helping industry analysts
  • Talking with past employees of competitors
  • Attending and participating in conferences and trade shows
  • Conducting joint roadmap reviews with customers
  • Getting customer feedback on new product plans
  • Creating user groups and participating in their meetings
  • Getting to know other suppliers to your customers
  • Meeting with players in adjacent markets
  •  Joining and participating in industry groups
  • Developing personal relationships with peers across the entire community

A culture of getting involved in your customer’s community should be pervasive throughout your company. Management, sales, marketing, product management, and service should all participate.

This is especially true of product managers. These are the people in the organization who are responsible for the commercial success of a product or market segment. To define winning products, they must understand customers, competitors, and the market dynamics that drive their businesses. They must view the world through the eyes of their market. To do so, they have to participate in it.

Those that do are easy to spot.

  • They passionately defend product ideas from the perspective of the problem it solves for the customer.
  • They describe products by what they need to do rather than how they should do it.
  • They describe value in terms of the customer’s business, not product features.
  • They don’t just report market news; they explain the implications for you and your customers.
  • They are not vague about how customer value can be created.
  • They have a credible, market-based answer to the question “Why?” for every product requirement that they’ve placed on your product roadmap.
  • They can be difficult to distinguish from your customers when they speak.
  • They often get accused of “taking the customer’s side” on tough issues.

Seek Enduring Customer Collaborations

Voice-of-the-Customer is the capital equipment product manager’s go-to tool for getting close to customers. The best product managers take this a step further. They develop enduring collaborations that blur the line between their organization and the customers’. Enduring collaborations are a constant presence by a supplier to help their customers

  • Find new ways to improve profitability and growth,
  • Implement their product roadmaps,
  • Overcome obstacles to success, and
  • Get more out of the systems they have already purchased from you.

If you want to get closer to your customers, you need to live and work with them. Nobody is in a better position to do this than your applications team. An applications team carries out all those activities that ensure your products will be successful in your customers’ environment:

  • They collaborate with lead customers to develop new-product applications.
  • They manage new-product beta partner programs.
  • They qualify new products for market introduction.
  • They develop and maintain in-house systems and process characterization capability.
  • They help customers resolve application and integration problems.

This team should be indistinguishable from the one that your customer employs to use, qualify, and maintain your products. Therefore, your applications team needs the following:

  • Technical skills that reflect those of your customers
  • An understanding of the processes upstream and downstream from the one your equipment performs, including process integration
  • An operational mind-set that echoes that of your customers
  • The ability to run demonstration and applications labs with the same discipline that your customers employ to run your equipment in their facilities

Your applications team isn’t your only opportunity to create enduring collaborations. You’ve also got your service team. It’s easy for the equipment supplier to think of after-sale services as simply a revenue generator. But it’s also a terrific enduring collaboration generator. Think about it: those service engineers are on-site every day helping your customers

  • Keep your equipment running,
  • Meet production goals, and
  • Solve problems.

Your service engineers are probably indistinguishable from your customers’ own equipment engineers. They often feel more affinity for their customers than they do for their employer. They even wear badges with your customers’ logos on them. You couldn’t ask for a better opportunity to get close to your customers.

Applications and service teams walk, talk, and act like your customers. Your customers seek them out whenever they need help solving process, technology, or production problems. They treat them as an extension of their own organization. These teams are your conduit to enduring customer collaborations that will reveal key problems that your customers are facing and inspire valuable products to solve them.