How to successfully pilot your products and avoid wasting time, money and leads
So, you have a shiny new product, or maybe just a squeaky MVP nonetheless, it is time to take it out for a spin. Doing a pilot with real live customers is not a game of chance but a well-though-out business tactic. In this story, I will cover everything (almost) you need to consider before, during and after the pilot.
Considering the “WHY” is always good for you. Ask yourself “why should I pilot my product?” and closely examine your reply. There can be countless answers to that, but only a few are valid. Here are some examples of valid reasons to go on a pilot.
My customer requires it, before making a substantial commitment
I need to get some social validation for my product, from a reputable source
Regulations require it (like FDA or similar, applicable only in certain domains and territories)
I need to test out some product or market assumptions that require real customer interaction
Once you know your reasoning, you can start planning out your pilot. This should come before an actual pilot opportunity is available but in many cases, you get the opportunity to pilot before you even though about it seriously. If that is the case, first find your “why”, next start planning. Say yes only if the opportunity meets your goals and planning.
“The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.” Warren Buffett
Planing a Pilot
Once you know your “Why”, planning should revolve around it passionately if not obsessively. You have a goal and need to make sure you reach it. Even when planned, pilots tend to go off rails, but planning definitely helps reduce the risk and improve readiness to when the $[-]!7 hits the fan. Planning should include, but not limited to:
Goals are direct derivatives of your “why”. Don’t get creative. If your reasoning is valid, just phrase it as your goal (e.g get customer order).
KPIs are the quantified measures of your goals. Simply drill further down from your “Why” and goals. (e.g minimum 100K$ order)
Time Frame Should be as short as possible, yet long enough to reach your set goals. One year pilots are an Oxymoron (except in MedTech and other unique cases).
Target Audience should be well defined, based on your goals. If you want social validation, choose a thought leader, not a laggard.
Owners are not only the people in your organization that are in charge of the pilot, but your partners should also name someone from their end to lead the pilot to success. Nominating for these roles, IMHO, is the single most critical ingredient for success. Without an owner, not only things fall between the cracks, but there is also no one to celebrate the success or watch out for bumps along the way (and there are always such bumps). Now is a good time to mention that if your pilot partner is not interested in nominating an owner for the pilot, it’s because there is no real interest in your product (and the success of the pilot). Be warned!
Marketing should have a say while planning. Whether you want to take some pictures or gather testimonials, marketing should be involved in the planning process and probably during the execution. Using a pilot to create marketing assets is something to consider, regardless of your goals.
Pre/Post refers to any activity that takes place before and after the pilot, usually to make sure the pilot is a success and that everybody can see that. Such activities include collecting data (through surveys, product analytics, etc), sanity check, training, intro webinars, etc.
A roadmap is not just a product thing. When piloting, it is a good practice to put everything on a timeline. From pre-activities through mid-pilot and post-activities, mention any way-point and actions needed to take you from one way-point to the next. If you choose to add sub-tasks, define owners and put everything in a project management tool, you have everything you need to manage this pilot like a pro. Except for a project manager, which can be nominated.
Once the pilot starts, make sure to keep your eyes on your goals. It is not unlikely that even though you planned everything, things will go off the rail. Maybe the time frame doesn’t fit anymore, or owners tend to neglect their responsibilities, whatever that may be, you need to focus everyone on the set goals. Make sure you get what you came for. There are no concrete advises I can share here (but feel free to add in the comments), as every pilot is unique, but as long as the pilot answers your “why” you should be fine.
After the dust has settled you should have everything you came for, a big fat order, testimonials from thought leaders, product/market insights or anything else your business needed to grow. Make sure you cover the following:
Communicate the results within your company and possibly with your market/customers/investors etc. Internally, you should also refer to the good, bad and ugly sides of the pilot. It is a good example to share failures and mistakes as part of doing/trying/accomplishing.
Celebrating is not just making a toast for a pilot done well (and recognizing the people who contributed). It also involves the related PR, marketing assets, publications, blog posts and whatever you can do to celebrate and monetize this. Whether social validation was one of your goals or not, a success story is a good story (and sometimes a bust story is just as good).
Implement what you have learned. Maybe there was some valid feedback from the customer, or the pilot planning could have been done better. Maybe there are more questions to ask (and another pilot??). Regardless of the outcome, growing means becoming a better version of your former self. Whether it’s you we are talking about, your product, team or company, make sure the pilot drives improvement.
Too often I encounter pilots that have no realistic time frame, no well-defined goals and no mechanism to make sure it’s a success. Whatever you do, do not go on a pilot on a whim hoping it will go great and end in a big, profitable, repeatable transaction.