A Brief History of Product Management: Starts With a Spark
Product management was originally seated in marketing but has evolved. It's still misunderstood but it's now getting the recognition it deserves with product people...
No business can survive without their customers. Too often, organizations get caught up in their own priorities. While the company pursues metrics and objectives without considering the customers’ interests, they may negatively impact the customer experience. Customer centricity aims to always keep the customer top of mind. This way, you tie every decision and action back to how it affects the customer.
But saying you’re customer centric and actually being customer centric are two different things. Truly embracing customer centricity requires organizations to shift how they approach their processes, but those able to make that transition find the shift is worth it.
Customer centricity places the customer in the middle of every decision a product-led company makes. In every product decision, you’re first asking whether the change impacts the customer in a helpful or hurtful way.
When customers are the fulcrum for every move the company makes, organizations can increase — or preserve — customer value. Without this grounding influence, companies are more likely to pursue paths that might benefit the company itself or its stakeholders. They leave the actual customer base behind.
Companies shouldn’t just adopt customer centricity because it’s the “right thing to do,” either. According to Deloitte, “client-centric companies are 60% more profitable compared to companies not focused on the customer.”
That’s due to the fact that happy customers are more loyal. Customers will continue doing business with a company that puts their needs and concerns first. And given how costly a high churn rate can be, it should come as no surprise that a customer-centric company is going to generate higher profits. However, when your customers churn it’s important to collect cancellation feedback.
Zappos and Amazon may have been the pioneering cheerleaders for product-led customer centricity. However, its mantras and benefits are now permeating even the most traditional companies.
“Walmart had not been all that customer-centric, having made operations the backbone of the company. Customer data and insights gave us the courage and a convincing hand in determining what was fact and what was fiction. And it drove ideas for growth,” says Walmart CMO Stephen Quinn. “For example, when we discovered that pharmacy customers routinely broke pills in half because they couldn’t afford their full prescription, we developed the very successful $4 prescription program. With [customer] knowledge, we had the power to define growth in a much more appropriate way.”
The best way to be customer-centric is actually to interact with customers. This means climbing down from the ivory tower and getting your hands dirty, seeing how the sausage is made and immersing yourself in the drudgery of the day-to-day life of a customer.
But as much as product managers might like to spend oodles of time with customers, there are only so many hours in the day. However, there is another internal resource that can be tapped to increase exposure to customer experiences exponentially.
“Customer support teams interact directly with existing customers that are struggling. This means that customer support has a wealth of information about the challenges that existing customers face, and what kinds of solutions are more likely to satisfy the needs of existing customers,” says Clement Kao of Product Manager HQ. “Not only that, customer support teams are truly product champions – they promote the effectiveness of the product and actively soothe the customers who are most likely to churn.”
Luckily, getting this perspective doesn’t require going undercover, spying, or eavesdropping. There are plenty of ways you can get up-close-and-personal with customers throughout the entire product lifecycle.
There’s no better way to realize your product isn’t perfect than supporting customers trying—and struggling—to use it. Product managers riding shotgun with customer support or fielding calls or emails themselves is a real wake-up call.
Although anecdotal information is qualitative, hearing from customers about where they’re hitting roadblocks is a reality check that stats can’t replicate. When you’re working the support lines, you’re trying to help a real person (under their own set of real pressures and deadlines).
When you humanize product shortcomings, flaws, and imperfections bring an emotional element to how product managers view their product and their customer base. Since the vast majority of customers rarely contact support, if you spot a trend, you can be sure it’s an epidemic among the entire user population.
Handling support cases is an excellent activity for your first month on the job of a new product. It’s also worthwhile any time you’ve introduced a new set of functionality or overhauled the UX.
Up-front customer research product teams tend to huddle amongst themselves with their product development counterparts until things are ready for launch. But this misses out on all the great chances for additional customer input throughout the full process.
Including users in testing is an essential ingredient for customer-centric companies; who else could genuinely evaluate if a product is doing what it’s supposed to do and works for the customer?
Beyond product testing, there are numerous other opportunities for product teams and customers to exchange ideas. Whether it’s lunch-and-learns, in-depth product demos, or including them in post-mortems and pre-mortems, customer support is your in-house pipeline to how your customers interact with your product.
Create a forum for customers to provide open and honest feedback. It will change the entire dynamic between your company and customers. When done correctly, customer advisory board members feel like they’re part of the team and build up a vested interest in your product succeeding.
The relationships and dialogues that grow from these boards can provide far more insightful learnings than other feedback collection mechanisms. The customers feel more comfortable sharing because of the nature of the exchanges. Additionally, you get the added benefit of watching and listening to customers interact with each other. A tremendous amount of knowledge can be gleaned from listening while different clients share their experiences and ask questions of their counterparts.
With the proper preparation and follow-through, customer advisory boards can be a tremendous asset for the product team and the company. The customer advisory board is a group of potential beta testers, testimonial givers, case study subjects, and references. Additionally, they give product managers a roster of contacts to bounce ideas off of before committing any development resources. But to make the most of the opportunity, product teams should take care to construct their customer advisory board wisely.
Customer support and product management have a mutual responsibility to do right by the customer. Therefore, if product management isn’t addressing the biggest pain points customers face, they’re not doing an excellent job of creating valuable solutions.
However, if customer support doesn’t surface common issues or effectively communicate the requirements to product management, then they won’t get addressed. That’s why both groups must view the other as part of the same team and an invaluable part of the product life cycle.
It’s essential to set up channels and processes for collecting feedback from customer support. This will ensure it doesn’t get lost, ignored, or forgotten.
For PMs, it’s your responsibility to make sure that their feedback is acknowledged (even if you don’t act on it). Then close the loop when a fix or change is made in response to specific customer feedback. The customer support team should then tell the customer about it. This will engender goodwill with both support and the end-user.
Conducting regular review sessions with customer support to know what the burning issues are is another worthwhile endeavor. It gives everyone a chance to discuss what will have the most impact on customers, which is what customer centricity is all about.
phone interviews with customers are crucial. Yet, there’s nothing that replicates the value that comes from visiting customers in-person.
Take a moment to observe customers in their natural habitat. A host of environmental factors may avail themselves that would have otherwise never come up. Likewise, you can see exactly how they’re using the product, on their own devices, on their own networks, in their own chairs.
You might find something you weren’t expecting. They might paint a much more accurate picture of your users and their experiences using your products. And if you asked everyone enough background questions when they contacted customer support, it would take half a day to close a single ticket.
With on-site customer visits, your users will be more comfortable discussing how they use the product, including their frustrations and their challenges. With a “home field” advantage, there’s a much better chance your customers will open up.
To make the most of your visits, ensure you’re getting a fair sampling of your user base. Don’t just visit your biggest and best customers or stick to a single industry. Getting some variety in will provide a much more comprehensive view of the user experience and hopefully negate any biases from a limited sample size.
And remember, you’re there to listen and learn. The only questions you should ask are to delve further into the issues they’ve raised or to clarify their statements.
“You are not visiting a customer to sell your awesome ideas, your brand new product or to do consulting to solve all his problems,” says Juan Fernández of Audiense. “Talking to your current, future, or past customers and users always sheds tons of light into the way you know and understand your own product. That understanding of the customer needs is what feeds your internal knowledge base to be later on able to make informed decisions about your products.”
In a customer-centric world where customer impact shapes everything, there’s no resource more valuable than the folks on the front lines every day. Build a stronger relationship with customer support and include them in product planning processes.
Analytics and metrics are significant indicators of progress and inputs to the decision-making process. But it’s hard to overemphasize the importance of intelligence and knowledge gathered by actual humans. Make your product the best that it can be by leveraging your colleagues wearing headsets and operating the chat rooms and bringing the voice of the customer into every step of the product planning process.