Customer interviews are an important component of the product development process. Product managers use customer interviews to help inform product decisions by validating problems, solutions, and pain points. However, when we talk about “customer interviews” we’re often putting two distinctively different personas into the same bucket: users and buyers. In many cases, especially in the context of SaaS products, the person actually using your product is not the same as the person buying the product. So which one of these personas should you be interviewing?

The correct answer, as always, is that it depends on the reason for that conversation. In more cases than you might realize, it’s the company’s buyer—not the end user—whose opinion should be your top priority. In this post, we’ll discuss why that is, and offer you some suggestions for learning what your product’s prospective buyers actually want and need.

Why to Interview Buyers (as Opposed to Users)

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again, product managers aren’t fundamentally in the business of developing products—they’re in the business of solving customers’ problems. And the products they bring to market are simply tools for solving those problems.

But let’s dig even deeper. Most organizations hire product managers to solve customer problems for one reason: selling those solutions will make the company money.

It might sound obvious, but when you think of it this way—as a product manager, everything you do is ultimately aimed at increasing the bottom line. As such, you can see why there are situations where product feedback from buyers can carry a lot more weight than feedback from end users.

Of course you’ll still need to develop your product to meet the specific needs and preferences of your user persona, which means you’ll need to learn what those needs and preferences are—ideally by talking with users.

But, at the end of the day, if you can’t persuade buyers to buy, you have an even bigger problem. That’s why you can’t overlook buyers and their needs when developing your product. These people are the decision makers who either greenlight use of your product by their organization or not, so knowing and serving their needs is of utmost importance. However, getting to know them can be challenging for a number of reasons.

Why Products Struggle to Win Over Buyers

When B2B product managers discuss their products with prospective end users at their target companies, they’re typically interested in answers like these: Would this product improve some aspect of your workflow? Would this product save you time or frustration? Do you find the interface user-friendly enough that you would want to use this product regularly?

If the product meets the user’s own needs or makes some aspect of their job easier or more enjoyable, that user is likely to become the product’s champion.

But persuading a buyer at the same company is often a far more complex task. Product managers must understand how the product fits into a larger picture of competing priorities for the buyer and for the customer’s organization. They need to know, for example, how the buyer would answer questions like these:

  • Does this product serve any of the priority initiatives I am currently focused on?
  • Would this product help us generate revenue or cut expenses to a degree that would justify the investment?
  • Is this an investment that could turn out badly for the company—which I’d probably be blamed for?

Interviewing Users vs. Interviewing Buyers: A Hypothetical

Imagine a company developing a robotic hotel room cleaner. The sophisticated robot can clean a room in half the time it takes a human being.

Now imagine the product manager for that product talking to a hotel’s cleaning-staff manager—the user persona. The manager loves the idea. It would help with scheduling, which is always difficult. It will reduce the number of frantic calls they get from the registration desk asking for a rush job to clean a room for an important guest. In short, the manager thinks the idea is great and would love for the company to buy as many robots as possible. In this respect, users are easy interviews.

But is the product manager getting the whole story here? Of course not. They still need a number of other key pieces of information to learn if their product is viable for this hotel (or others). These are answers they couldn’t get from the manager because they don’t have them.

The product manager will get a more accurate picture of their product’s potential by speaking with the Vice President of Operations (the buyer), who will review the product against those larger-picture issues.

1. Does this product serve any of the priority initiatives I am currently focused on?

Perhaps the hotel’s C-level team has tasked the Ops VP this year with updating the hotel’s Internet and physical security. Those are the two big operations initiatives for the year, and they’re the only buckets into which the VP can devote budget. That means a new automated room cleaner, no matter cool, probably won’t be a priority.

The product manager might also use this information as a starting point for their own research into the hotel industry generally. Maybe studying up on the trends will show security is the main focus across the industry, meaning it might not be the time to pursue the robot project, at least not for the hospitality space.

2. Would this product help us generate revenue or cut expenses to a degree that would justify the investment?

Let’s say the first-gen robots cost $6,000 per unit. The cost might not matter to the cleaning-staff manager, but the Ops VP does a quick calculation and determines it would take several years for each robotic unit pay for itself.

If the company (and perhaps hotels in general) will not make a major investment like this unless they expect to recoup their costs within a shorter time frame, the robotic cleaner might be dead-on-arrival for yet another reason, at least in the hotel industry.

3. Is this an investment that could turn out badly for the company—which I’d probably be blamed for?

Sometimes if a product is too radical for an organization, the buyer has a personal reason to say no. If such a purchase goes wrong, it will likely be the buyer who takes the blame. This might be unfair, but it’s a reality of any sale, particularly a B2B sale: the person who green lights the investment needs to feel confident that it will ultimately be a net positive for the company, to protect their own reputation and job.

As you can see, getting answers to questions like these upfront—which often can only be done by talking with buyers, not users—can help save a product manager save their company a lot of misspent time and resources developing a product users love but their management won’t pay for.

How to Learn What Buyer Personas Want

Connecting with your user personas will often be much easier than reaching buyers, because you can contact users directly without having to worry about gatekeepers. Also, users are often willing and sometimes even eager to try your product or take your survey and tell you what they think about your idea.

Buyers, who are usually higher up in the organization and more frequently approached because they control budget, are less likely to take your call to chat about your product.

Fortunately, though, buyers leave a lot of clues out there about what they’re focused on, what their priorities are, and what they want and demand from products like yours. So if you’re trying to learn how to shape your product (or just your team’s sales pitch for it) to make it more appealing to a potential buyer, there are a lot of ways of gathering useful intelligence about them. For example:

1. Read industry publications to read what your buyers are up to.

Publications like CIO Magazine often list the top initiatives of corporate tech and IT executives for the coming year.

If you’re a product manager responsible for technology products, that information can be extremely useful in helping you determine if your product roadmap matches the coming priorities of your target buyers. Study these publications.

2. Listen to buyers’ public comments.

Because your target buyers are often higher-ups at your customer companies, they will also in some cases be thought leaders in their industries. They might have their own corporate blogs, speak or sit on panels at industry conferences, and contribute articles to industry publications.

Read what they say they’re working on now, and what they see as the next big threats or opportunities in their industries. There could be valuable insights there about how to present your solution to them—or even whether it’s worth pursuing that solution at all.

3. Ask your sales reps for guidance, and sit in on product demos.

If your sales team is already selling an existing product, you’ll find that your sales reps are an invaluable source of knowledge on your buyer personas.

Your reps will know, for example, what questions or concerns buyers raise most often in sales meetings (which will be very different from users’ questions). They’ll know where in their demos buyers most often raise objections—or where they cheer that someone has finally solved a specific problem.

So talk to your sales reps often about their encounters with buyers, and join demo meetings if you know buyers (and not just end users) will be attending.

Win the Buyer First, Then Win the User

Buyers will have an entirely different set of feedback from the feedback you’re used to receiving from users. But this information is at least as important to the ultimate success of your product—probably more.

Which means if you’re trying to validate a new idea for a B2B product—a SaaS application, for example—positive responses from would-be end users are great, but they’re not sufficient evidence for your team to get started on development. In fact, you should not write a single line of code until you’ve talked to a buyer at your target company.

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