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I was recently invited to visit several customer sites to gather user data for future products in the context of a sales call. We had an hour at most with these folks. The rep set the tone, then turned it over to me about halfway through. The company is committed to continuous improvement, and has a healthy and mature design practice at the mother-ship, but it surprises me that user research is done alongside sales. (It's a B-to-B company with technical products and a fairly long sales cycle.)

I'm wondering if others have been invited on sales ride-alongs, also, and if there are any strategies for maximizing the little time you have while managing the somewhat conflicting agendas of sales and research. I am choosing to look at this experience as an opportunity to sell ux to the larger team, even if I do not get the depth of insight I would like out of it.

What has worked for you, and what hasn't worked so well, when it comes to tagging along with your sales team to collect information from the field? Thanks in advance for any insights!

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I think that sales members provide a particular perspective of the client/user side of the story, and depending on the organization you work in and the client base you will find it useful to different degrees. Here are some of the benefits I can think of:

  1. You can find out if it is worth visiting the same company again. If it is a waste of time for you then at least you know that.
  2. You can find out from the company directly what their interest in UX is. It is better than hearing it from another person.
  3. You can find out how the sales people communicate, and therefore be able to frame UX benefits to address sales requirements/needs better.
  4. You can get a first hand experience of differences between organizations in terms of their needs from the sales perspective.
  5. You can usually observe things about the company that reflect some quality (good or bad) about their users from things like the working environment, the typical day in the company.
  6. You can bump into people there that you should be talking to, and you can just get their details directly instead of having to go through other channels.

My advice is to work with the sales person if there is good communication, otherwise even if you keep your eyes and ears open you'll learn a lot more compared to just sitting in the office. If there are things that strike your interest about users I always like to ask the sales person (who can answer the question or be able to chase up someone there and then instead of having to wait for email replies).

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Regarding your #5, totally agree! Even removed from their workspaces, we could glean a lot. Thanks, Michael! –  LindaBrammer Jul 18 '13 at 13:53
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Having said that, you do have to decide whether 5 minutes of insight from one visit is worth spending a whole day doing something else. But sometimes that insight is more valuable then doing a whole of of user research in your own office :) –  Michael Lai Jul 18 '13 at 22:03
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Putting aside user experience and I don't know how much this applies to your company, but I found it extremely helpful to go with a sales member and meet with the real people who use our products. At the office its hard to tell how much of an impact the things you do have on other people and it's easy to lose sight of what important. When you go and meet the hundreds of people and millions of dollars that is built around the things you do, you get a better appreciation for the position your clients are in. It might make you think twice about cutting a corner or missing a deadline.

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Thanks, Justin. +1 for the thoughtful answer. I agree, I definitely enjoy getting out and meeting customers. I was mostly asking about the context of the sales call and balancing conflicting needs. I would like to spend hours at the customer's desk-side, observing, but an hour in the conference room is a bit of a challenge! –  LindaBrammer Jul 18 '13 at 13:52
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