Product Managers: Why Your Next Coffee Date Should Be with Your Director of Customer Success

Figuring out what your customers will truly want—not what they say they will buy, but what they will actually buy and use—is one of the biggest challenges a product manager faces. It’s often just as difficult to learn how your existing customers are actually using your product in their everyday workflows, and what (if any) hacks or workarounds they’ve developed to make your product simpler or more productive for them. These insights would obviously be a boon to your product, but they’re not easy to come by.

There are a number of inherent difficulties in uncovering these answers using typical “Product” communication channels (product metrics, surveys, and sales feedback). For example, here are few common problems you might encounter:

Your market surveys never tell you the whole story.

How could they? Your respondents are limited by the way the questions are framed, and by the fact that they themselves often don’t know exactly what they want. Also, checking a survey box that reads, “I’d be likely to use a tool like this” is very different from actually paying for the tool when it hits the market.

This is why surveys rarely, if ever, lead to those light-bulb moments where you discover a game-changing idea for your product. And while calling your existing customers directly can be a great idea—in fact, you should do this from time to time—you don’t want to over-interpret their suggestions or make generalizations based on the opinions of a few outspoken customers.

Focus-group tests can’t tell you the whole story, either.

According to the “observer effect” in physics, you can’t observe or measure a system without affecting that system’s behavior. The theory was developed to describe subatomic phenomena—like how electrons and photons interact—but the observer effect can also play out in everyday life. It’s why a lawyer grandstands during a trial when there are cameras in the courtroom.

This can also affect the results you receive from your user focus groups. When they interact with your product in front of your team and answer your questions about it, are your prospective customers being honest? Are they just telling you what you want to hear about your product because, after all, you’ve given them snacks and drinks for their time and you’re treating them so nicely?

Your sales reps can’t—or won’t—tell you the whole story.

One place many product managers go for “real world” feedback is their sales force. That makes sense: Your sales reps are out in the field pitching your products, learning what appeals to prospects, and understanding what their objections are. In theory, your sales team is compiling real-world market research that your product team should find valuable.

But your sales reps also have their own agendas and incentives. They might overstate the importance of a particular feature because they’re confident that including it will help them win one huge customer. And that feature, while a game-changer for that specific company’s processes, might not resonate with any of your other prospects.

So, trying to find the answers you need by going directly to your customers has built-in drawbacks. Relying on your Sales team to tell you how to prioritize your product resources has pitfalls as well. Where else might you find the key customer insights you seek?


Your Customer Success Department: a Hidden Treasure Trove of Actionable User Knowledge

As a matter of fact, there’s a team of professionals at your company, right now, who are gathering real-world user information every day that you could be leveraging: your Customer Success department. And if you’re like many product managers, you might be missing out on this treasure trove of actionable business intelligence just waiting for you in that department.

Think of the things your Customer Success team hears on a regular basis:

1. What users love about your product

Yes, even on help calls, some of your customers will share their success stories about using your products. Are you collecting that information?

2. What users hate about your product

You may well hear about these issues from your Customer Success reps, especially if they hear the same issues over and over. But are you talking with those reps to hear the whole story? Are you learning exactly why customers are having the issue, or whether the issue is part of a larger problem with the product?

3. Creative hacks or shortcuts your customers are developing for your products

What if, in a standard help call, your Customer Success rep learns that a user has found an ingenious way of shortening the steps required to complete a standard task with your product? Think that might be something worth hearing about, so you can use it to update the product or help other customers?
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4. New uses for your products

Sometimes a customer will find an entirely new way to get value from your product—maybe by sharing it with colleagues in a different department that you’d never even thought of as a target user persona. And in discussing some other aspect of your product—even if the call is based on a complaint or concern—your Customer Success rep might learn this interesting new use for your product. Might that be something you’d want to know?

This list is far from complete, of course. There may well be other valuable things your Customer Success team could be learning about your product right now.

Our advice? Build a systematic way for your Customer Success reps to capture this all-important customer feedback and share it with you—so your product team can review it, analyze it, and use it to make better-informed decisions about your product going forward.

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At ProductPlan, for example, we have a #customer-feedback channel on Slack that the Customer Success team uses to share relevant feedback from their conversations. This provides a high level of transparency into what the Customer Success team is hearing, and makes it easy to quickly discuss that feedback in real-time.

While a Slack channel might not work for every company, we’re confident that creating a communication channel between Product and Customer Success will help your team build an even better product for your users.

And it can all start with you inviting your head of Customer Success out for a cup of coffee.