As a product manager, you need customer feedback at every stage of the product development lifecycle to inform your product decisions and help you establish a foolproof product strategy.

Before you even have customers, feedback can be incredibly valuable to you. Before a single line of code is written, feedback from real people can help you validate your concept, size up the market, and estimate potential demand. Before shipping your product, feedback can validate whether you’re actually solving the problems you set out to solve and help ensure your product positioning and messaging are effective. As soon as your product has been released out into the wild, customer feedback can help you not only find bugs and technical issues but also navigate those difficult “what should we build now?” decisions. Customer feedback can help you prioritize your product roadmap as effectively as possible.

The more insight you have from customers and prospects, the more fuel you have to drive informed decisions. We often hear product managers that work on established products complaining about their struggle managing what feels like a firehose of product feedback coming at them from every imaginable angle. While these product managers are trying to keep afloat in a sea of feature requests, product managers of early-stage products face the opposite problem; a feedback drought. Without any existing customers to provide a steady stream of input, early-stage product managers often get most of their product feedback from internal folks (such as the executive team), or even friends and family.

Any feedback is better than no feedback, but the opinions of colleagues, friends, and family are no match for input from your ideal customers and users. So how do you get feedback from customers when you don’t have any yet?

How to Get Early-stage Customer Feedback

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to getting customer feedback. Your approach to customer feedback will vary depending on your objectives, the stage of your product, whether you have an existing customer base to leverage, and the resources you have at your disposal. As such, we won’t try to prescribe a single specific feedback regimen for everyone. Instead, what follows is a series of suggestions to help you glean actionable feedback from actual customers and prospects during the earliest stages of product development.

Validating a concept or idea before building

Sure, you could (and should) invest in some market research and have a firm help you pull together a focus group to see if your idea may have traction. But an easier, and often more cost-effective approach to gauging interest in your idea is the good ol’ landing page MVP.

Before our founders built ProductPlan in 2013, they wanted to gauge whether there was interest in roadmapping software. They did so by building a simple landing page and setting up AdWords and LinkedIn campaigns for it. Based on the response their landing page received (and subsequent market validation interviews), they began building V1 of the app that eventually became ProductPlan.

The landing page MVP can help you do more than simply validate ideas. It can also help you generate a list of people to reach out to and use as a sounding board to bounce early ideas or designs off of, as well as giving you a list of potential beta users to invite when V1 of your product is ready.

Our founders were certainly not the first team to use this low-risk technique., From Buffer’s pre-product pricing page to Airbnb’s first website, creative minimum viable products can provide crucial feedback in the early days of your company or product.

Getting customer feedback pre-launch

As your product goes from concept or idea into production, it’s important to continue incorporating feedback into your development process. A simple, effective way to get feedback on early versions of your product is to establish a private beta group. If you’re able to, leverage the email list you’ve collected through a landing page or similar MVP to recruit beta testers. If you don’t have a list at your disposal, you’ll have to use other means to find a beta group.

Beta testers can help you glean an assortment of both qualitative and quantitative data to inform your product decisions:

  • Qualitative data: Use analytics tools and heatmaps to see how beta testers are using your app or site. Set up “goals” in Google Analytics to determine how many users are completing specific activities or sequences of actions.
  • Quantitative data: Email your beta testers to solicit feedback directly and set up calls with willing testers. Some may even be willing to let you conduct informal “user testing” sessions where you can observe them while they use your product. The most useful thing you can do during beta is to start an ongoing dialogue with your testers so you can better understand their needs, wishes, and challenges.

In addition to beta tests, it is wise to continue leveraging a landing page MVP during the pre-launch phase. It is a great way to continue gathering potential first customers, more beta testers, and to validate any tweaks you’d like to make to your messaging and marketing.

Collecting feedback from your very first customers post-launch

Don’t assume that releasing your product to the public will automatically prompt a stream of feedback to come rolling in. You may receive input here and there, but until you have amassed a large customer base, you’ll need to make a conscious effort to get enough feedback to inform decisions.

Google analytics and other sources of behavioral data will provide useful insight into conversions, activities, and usage. But numbers and ratios can only tell half the story. And chances are your sample sizes are way too small to help you draw statistically significant conclusions anyway. Support tickets are a great place to mine for nuggets of insight, but they too fail to tell the whole story.

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“The best thing you can do for your product post-launch is personally email your first customers.”

When you only have a handful of customers, you can easily make time to send each and every one a short email thanking them for signing up and soliciting feedback. Your customers will notice the difference between a personal email and an automated one and are far more likely to respond to you than to a robot. Personally reaching out to every single new customer in the early stages will help you build rapport and make customers feel valued. Engaging in conversations with your early customers also demonstrates to them that you’re actually listening and they have the ability to influence the product.

Of course, eventually, you’ll reach a point where you simply have too many new users to email every single one. This is a good thing for your business, but it doesn’t mean you should stop trying to collect feedback from new users. When you need a more scalable approach, you may begin using some light automation to handle welcome and feedback solicitation emails for the majority of new users and perhaps only personally email large accounts or certain segments you’d like to chat with. You can also roll out a survey using Net Promoter Score to measure early customer satisfaction and identify promoters among your early users. Whichever approach you take, do your best to stay as personal as possible for as long as possible.

How to act on feedback from your first customers

It’s easy to put product feedback in context when you already have a large base of happy customers. But how do you respond when your first batch of beta users rips your product to shreds, or an important early customer demands a huge new feature?

First of all, don’t panic. Second of all, don’t take every idea you get and run with it. Lack of focus and poor prioritization are surefire ways to kill your product. The most important thing to do is stay focused on your product and business objectives as you work your way through the feedback you receive. As a product manager, you need to find the right balance among your feedback sources when determining which initiatives to act on. Look for “themes” or trends in the feedback you receive, and once you’ve identified a theme, spend some time digging deeper to better understand what needs to be done.

As you analyze your first batch of feedback, here are a few common customer feedback pitfalls to look out for:

Listening to the loudest voice

It can be tempting to listen to the “loudest voice,” but it’s not always the best idea, especially this early on in your product’s development. Remember that you want to look for themes and trends in your feedback, and a single customer making the same request repeatedly (and loudly) does not provide sufficient evidence of a trend among your greater userbase.

Taking things at face value

As Henry Ford famously said, “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they would have asked for a faster horse.” If you want to extrapolate useful insight from customer feedback, you need to dig to the core of every request. When your customer asks for a faster horse, what is it that they actually want? What is the greater problem they are trying to solve? What the customer asks for is not always the best solution, but it is always a great hint at their biggest problems.

Expecting to know everything before making a decision

Making big decisions based on small quantities of feedback at your disposal can be daunting, but you can’t let that stop you. Life is full of uncertainty, and you simply don’t know what you don’t know. You will never have all of the answers, but you always have the capacity to make informed decisions based on the information you do have. After all, there’s a reason they say product management is both an art and a science.

Not planning for the future

If you play your cards right, your product and your customer base won’t stay small forever. If you aren’t careful, you may reach a point where you feel that you have too much feedback to manage. To avoid this you must create a repeatable, documented process for collecting and managing feedback from the beginning and adjust it to fit your needs as you grow.

Finding ways to collect and act on customer feedback when you don’t necessarily have heaps of customers lining up to share their thoughts doesn’t have to be complicated if you don’t make it so. At the beginning of the product lifecycle, you may have to take a more personalized approach to gather feedback than in later stages, but in the end, the outcome of your efforts is nearly the same: you have a collection of actionable insight to inform product decisions.

Have you gone through the process of gathering feedback early on in the product lifecycle? We’d love to hear about your experience and what you learned. Share your tips in the comments below.