Product managers are often tasked with managing countless customer requests. But as the strategic masterminds behind product strategy, we know we can’t spend our days acting as order takers. Furthermore, we also are keenly aware that we need not allow our product plans to be driven solely by customer requests. Or at least not by customer requests we haven’t done our due diligence on. So if you’re a product manager wondering how to deal with the constant stream of customer requests and feedback, this one’s for you.

Today we’ll address the role of customer feedback in formulating product strategy and look at how to transform qualitative customer requests into actionable data to inform product decisions. How do you know which requests to act on? Which ones are high-priority? And which can be ignored?

A story Jeff Bezos recently told about the early days of Amazon might be a helpful starting point.

The Role of Customer Feedback in Amazon’s Early Days

During his talk at the Economic Club of Washington, Business Insider reports, Bezos explained that by 1997, Amazon was ready to expand into new markets. In its first three years, the company sold primarily books, music, and videos online. The question was then: which markets to expand into next?

Bezos simply emailed 1,000 Amazon customers at random and asked what other products they’d like to see on the online marketplace. The responses were fascinating: The survey group seemed to want 1,000 different items.

“Basically,” Bezos recalled, “they way they answered the question was with whatever they were looking for at the moment.” One customer responded that they wished Amazon sold windshield wiper blades. Reviewing the responses led to an epiphany for Bezos. “I thought to myself, ‘we can sell anything this way.'”

2 Big Lessons from Jeff Bezos’s 1,000-Email Survey

From that anecdote about how customer feedback drove Amazon’s business model, we can derive a couple of valuable lessons.

1. For strategic direction, there’s no substitute for hearing directly from customers.

You need a data-driven product roadmap, not one driven primarily by gut instinct.

As a product manager, you can’t afford to rely entirely on your intuition. Product management is both an art and a science. And customer feedback is a necessary ingredient for crafting a balanced product strategy.

Perhaps the most important type of data you can gather and analyze is what your customers are telling you directly. Customer requests and feedback—whether you like what you’re hearing or not—are invaluable business intelligence…but…

2. You have to learn how to read into customer requests to identify the strategic truths behind them.

Jeff Bezos learned from his customer survey that customers were interested in buying all sorts of things online. In the hands of a lesser-skilled entrepreneur, the survey results might have seemed confusing and inconclusive. Should we get into groceries next? Some people showed interest, but not enough to make it the obvious choice. It’s the same story with consumer electronics, and apparel… and windshield wiper blades. There’s no clear winner, so who knows what to do next?

Bezos, however, dug deeper into responses to uncover larger, more valuable insight: Customers were eager to shop online more.

Product managers need to learn how to filter out signal from noise within the never-ending stream of customer requests and demands. Then they need to figure out how to think both critically and creatively to discover the most important product insights in the signals. These are some of the most valuable skills you can develop as a product manager:

The question, of course, is how do to that.

Qualitative Customer Feedback is Not Objective

As we’ve pointed out in previous posts, customer requests often don’t translate directly to the best strategic moves for your product. Often your customers simply don’t know what they really want because it doesn’t exist yet.

When Henry Ford asked people what they would like to see in terms of improvements to their transportation, they asked for a faster horse. Can’t really blame them; the automobile hadn’t been invented yet.

So, yes, you must listen to your customers’ requests, encourage their feedback, and regularly review and analyze what they’re telling you. But it’s equally important that you apply filters to this data. You need to see beyond the What—the surface-level comments and requests from your customers—to uncover the Why behind those requests.

Here are a few examples of these filters that can help you sift through the pan of comments to find the gold nuggets.

3 Ways to Identify Actionable Customer Requests

1. Ask yourself if this customer request represents an opportunity to bring in new customers.

Sometimes a feature request represents a logical extension to your existing product, but not enough of an improvement to the overall offering to entice new customers to buy.

You of course need to factor in the value of continually improving on your existing product as a strategy to maintain relationships with your existing customers. But at the same time you need to remember that you are operating with finite resources. Therefore, you need to balance this retention strategy with an acquisition strategy as well.

2. Ask yourself if acting on this request will serve your core persona, or if it’s spinning out to a new persona (possibly the wrong one).

Let’s say you sell a B2B software application, and a customer requests new functionality that is healthcare specific. This customer’s company is one of a very few in the health industry that use your product. Perhaps making this addition to your product could help you tap into a whole new market. But…

You also need to do your due diligence before putting this new functionality on the product roadmap. You’ll first need to learn, for example:

  • Will your product actually work for the healthcare industry? Are there HIPAA or other regulatory constraints that would keep these companies from being able to work with you?
  • Is your company equipped to market to these personas?
  • Does this industry already have choices of incumbent solutions that perform most of the functionality as your product?
  • Do the companies in this industry have the same purchasing processes as your other customers? Or will you have to develop a new buying process for your sales team?

You need to filter customer requests from these tangential personas. And you need to vet them carefully to make sure you’re not wasting time and money.

3. Ask yourself if acting on this customer request will yield new functionality that people will actually pay for.

Finally, run customer requests through a filter that asks, “Is this something people would be willing to pay for?”

Often customers ask for functionalities, enhancements, or entirely new products they sincerely believe they would use—even love. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they would pay for these products.

A user of your product might have what sounds like a brilliant idea for a new feature set for your B2B software. But in doing your market research into this proposed feature you discover conflicting information. Yes, many people like the idea. But they also admit their companies or department heads are unlikely to approve the purchase of such a product.

Which is why, as our final piece of advice, we’d argue you should never act on a customer request—no matter how logical or even inspired that request seems—without first doing your due diligence.

Customer feedback can be helpful. Your intuition can be helpful, as well. But you need to support it all with strategic, thoughtful research.

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