The Secret To Listening Like A Product Manager

In this weekly series, I opine on how language and content affect the way we understand the products and services around us. I do this for…

The Secret To Listening Like A Product Manager

In this weekly series, I opine on how language and content affect the way we understand the products and services around us. I do this for your entertainment and education (and, of course, to remind you that if you’re looking for a freelance copy, content, product, or technical writer… yada yada, hire me).

Do you remember your first time shipping a feature to a real customer? I am haunted by mine to this day.

I had spent what felt like hundreds of hours doing research on how our customers used our current product. I had all the data. I had all the insights. I had pages of interview transcripts and gigabytes of screen recordings. I had a beautiful build plan, immaculate mock-ups, and pixel-perfect implementation. Code reviews? Check. Regression testing? Check. Externally accessible?!

I could already see the smiles and feel the back-pats coming my way.

I arrived on site not an hour after deploying the test build with a confident stride. But that strut turned to a trudge when I saw my customer, his face beet red with anger. His words have stayed with me since:

“You didn’t hear what I asked for at all. You tech people are all the same: you don’t get it! You don’t get the pressure I’m under; you don’t understand my pain!”

I was stunned.

I had fallen into the same trap that many product managers fall into early in their careers: I had heard my customer but I hadn’t listened.

The Difference Between Listening And Hearing

Early in life, your parents likely taught you that there is a big difference between hearing and listening.

Hearing is “the act of perceiving sound by the ear” while listening involves processing and understanding what is heard.

As you grow, you learn that listening is hard, but you may also learn it can pay off in a big way. That’s why a great many successful business leaders cite “listening” as one of the most important skills to develop.

As a product manager, when you talk to your users, you will hear feature requests.

You will hear your customers ask for one more button, or one more field, or one more way to navigate from point A to B. You may even hear them ask for a whole new whiz-bang feature.

You may then be tempted to build what you heard. But if you do, you’ll make the same mistake I did.

Listening Like A Product Manager

In contrast, when you learn to listen to your users — really listen — you will understand the actual problems beneath what you hear.

You will learn that the reason the user wants to move from point A to point B faster is because the way that he works does not match the way you assumed he did.

You will learn that the reason your user wants that brand new capability is because she has an entirely new job to be done that neither your product, nor your research, took into account.

Like any other skill, listening requires practice and effort, and there are plenty of resources out there that can help you become a better listener. The Mom Test is one great example. In the book, author Rob Fitzpatrick details some great techniques for active listening. Here are the most important ones.

Listen Intently

As a product manager, you are likely surrounded by tech — and interruptions. Between your smartphone, your laptop, and your watch, you can be easily distracted when talking to your customers.

Listening requires active participation and purpose, so make a point of focusing on the conversation at hand — whether in person, over the phone, or via email.

Ask Great Questions

Great listening also requires participation. When you hear something you don’t understand, or something intriguing, ask pointed follow-up questions and take a keen interest in hearing more.

As Fitzpatrick outlines, you should deliberately use open-ended questions to discover new insights and then use close-ended questions to confirm new facts.

Get Specific Examples

In those same discussions, you should also get specific examples whenever and wherever possible — especially when talking tasks.

Rather than asking the question “How do you accomplish the task today?”, instead ask the user “Tell me about the last time you tried to do the task”. The result will be far more specific and will uncover other insights worth listening to.

The Three L’s: Listen, Learn, Love

As a product manager, you must develop a real understanding of your customers’ pains, and, as is true for any human relationship, your ability to listen deeply will be essential in doing so.

To be a great product manager, you have to be a great listener. When you become one, you will build a deeper empathy and a deeper love for your customers.

And your customers will love your products in return.

What about you? Agree? Disagree? Respond away. And if you’d like to learn more about me or my business, visit