Product Marketing Marty Cagan

Getting Past The Gatekeepers

Readers of my articles know that I believe that the single most important thing that a product manager does is to get his ideas in front of real target users. This is where real learning happens, and this is where you can discover a product that customers love.

However, there are some environments where there are people that effectively try to prevent you from engaging directly with the end-users. I have written earlier about how critical this is that you get this direct engagement when you have a company trying to prevent this (see the SVPG article “Can’t Talk to Users?”).

But in this article I wanted to talk about two specific situations. The first is where your own marketing organization wants to be the gatekeeper, and the second is where your customers want to designate specific people to “represent” their end-users (often from their IT organization).

In a very real sense, these boil down to the same situation. Someone thinks they are in a position to represent your users. This occurs most often with with companies that sell to large enterprises, but can occur almost anywhere.

First and foremost, you need to be totally clear in your own mind how absolutely essential it is that you get in front of the actual end-users. If you are not completely convinced of this you won’t be able to convince your colleagues or customers (see the SVPG article “Prototyping Testing” for a discussion of this).

Second, you need to make very clear to these “gatekeepers” that this need to go directly to the end-user is nothing personal against them. Instead this speaks to a fundamental limitation of software and people. Just as you are not able to represent the end-user, neither can they. There are several reasons for this, but usually you are all far too close to the problem and too knowledgeable about the area, and you are all likely early adopter types, but the bottom line is that you are not your customer (see the SVPG article “Eating Dog Food”).

These people can help you greatly by facilitating the introduction to the actual target users. The marketing people often have good data on who the end-users are and where to find them. The representatives at the target customer companies have the access necessary to locate and schedule the sessions you’ll need.

By all means include these people during your interviews and user testing. They can help you to interpret what you see and these learnings will help them greatly in their jobs as well.

I can’t emphasize enough how essential it is to get this direct end-user access. It really is ridiculous to suggest that a great product can be designed without this.

If you give it your best shot and you are still locked out, then the path is different depending on the case.

If the problem is in your own organization, then one way or another you’ve got to get your marketing leaders out of the stone age. I saw a report recently from the Institute for the Study of Business Markets where they took old-school marketing to task:

“Companies suffer from a “depth deficit” for failing to think deeply enough about customers…our marketing teams have an abundance of superficial insights…what we also have in abundance are vacuums of real thinking which the teams gloss over by adding still more superficial thinking to our knowledge base…understanding what customers really need as organizations and individuals persists as the premier challenge – a fundamental obligation of business marketing still unmet…blamed marketers’ over reliance on rudimentary research techniques. Companies need to go beyond traditional market research to gain inherent product and process understanding…There’s a proven, more basic approach to customer understanding, however, although too few marketers roll up their sleeves, get their hands dirty and study how customers actually use their products.“ (see “B2B Marketing’s Balancing Act” by Ralph Oliva and Bob Donath).

If the problem is that your customers representatives won’t allow access, then you can recruit target end-users directly, just not necessarily from the exact customers you want. You can find several examples of this sort of recruitment today on Craigslist. You’ll need to screen the candidates but in most cases you can find people that really are from your target users.