Of all the activities product managers are engaged with, understanding customer needs and translating those into product requirements is probably the most strategic one.  Developing new products or enhancing existing ones, is a time consuming and resource intensive process. There are few things more devastating to a business than releasing a new product only to find out it fails to meet customer expectations. Furthermore, in today’s highly competitive markets, it is not enough “just” to meet customer needs – your product must also shine against competing products who aim to fulfill similar customer needs.

So how does a product manager go about gathering market requirements? Should he read market research? Follow the trade press? Talk to customers? Listen to what sales people have to say? Study competitors’ products? Evaluate suggestions and ideas coming from various departments within the company? YES he should. These are some of the wide ranging sources a product manager can tap into to gather product requirements.

But first let me emphasize what I believe should be the key focus for gathering requirements. I want to paraphrase a statement I attribute to the former CEO of Cadence Design Systems – Joe Costello. Those of us who worked under Mr. Costello may remember his saying to product managers eager to come up with new product ideas: “Find a Customer Problem and Solve It!”

This may sound somewhat simplistic, but I can’t even begin to describe the number of times I have seen product managers, and even companies get fixated on their own ideas and in the process forget it is all about the customers. It is all about addressing customers’ needs; solving customer problems; offering customers a better way to accomplish what they want to accomplish.

If you are a product manager tasked with gathering requirements for the next release, or the next product, then make sure you get as close as possible to “the customer” and understand their needs. Find a customer problem and solve it.

There are many sources with ideas on what to do next with your product. The engineering team usually comes up with clever, technology driven suggestions. Sales people interact with customers and competitors and love to tell marketing what should be done. Customer service receives numerous customer calls with complaints and requests. Other companies you work and cooperate with have ideas on where your product should be heading. Market analysts publish reports and offer their insight on where the industry is heading. These are all good sources, but remember to get in touch with your customers directly. Don’t get lost in translation.

So how do you get in touch with customers and find what they need? Well, if your company already has customers, the task is much easier. You tap into the customer database, get in touch with sales people who can make introductions and arrange to have direct conversation with customers. You can even run surveys with your existing customers and ask them to specify or prioritize their needs. Go on sales calls with existing or potential customers. Build trust relationship with key customers, so that you can discuss your ideas for new products, or how to evolve existing products, and hear what customers have to say.

Most importantly – get out there to the field. Go on road trips, sales visits, phone calls, tradeshows, and seminars – whatever gets you in front of customers and allows you to have a dialog. Make it a priority to have regular customer interactions, even if it burdens your already busy schedule and overflowing task list. Having direct customer contact is what keeps you (and the company) honest when it comes to developing and evolving products. Most product trouble begins when that contact is lost.

But what if your company or product doesn’t have customers yet? How do you gain that invaluable customer insight? This situation is especially common in the case of startups. My experience and advice is to wear your salesman hat and go out and meet potential customers. And if you don’t have such a hat, than “grow one” – go out there with sales people, engage and learn.

Too many startups, and far too many established companies, keep their new products “under wraps” till the designated launch date. By then it is far too late to gather customer feedback, or change anything material in the product. You may be one of the lucky ones that hit the mark, and your product happened to match what customers need. Unfortunately, this is the less likely scenario… And the risk associated with missing the mark is far too great. I believe that you should discuss product ideas, under great discretion, and with hand-picked customers as early as possible. There are many customers who love to participate in driving future product direction and know how to keep a secret. Find them.

But what if the customer doesn’t really “know what they need”? What if you are working on a revolutionary product, a breakthrough technology that customers simply cannot relate to, yet? How do you get input from customers under these circumstances? In marketing lingo this is referred to as the “unarticulated needs”, unlike what I discussed earlier which deals with “articulated needs”.

People love to talk about products that “created demand” once they were introduced. Products that met needs that customers weren’t even aware existed. I think that you have to be careful before talking about “creating needs”. My belief is that customers, individuals or businesses, usually buy products that satisfy their needs. Now the product may satisfy a need in a whole new way and thus create a category. But it stills satisfy a need.

Take for example smartphones: several years ago hardly any users would have described the set of features and functions smartphones offer today. Yet the need to stay connected, gain access to information, take pictures, etc. existed. The desire to carry as few devices as possible when leaving the house was always there. The ability to connect those dots and offer a product that addresses these “unarticulated needs” is what made smartphones such a huge success.

To me it all boils down to the very same advice I got from Joe Costello years ago: “Find a customer problem and solve it!