Keeping up with customers

It's not that hard to keep in constant touch with your customers.

Customer/user needs, user experience and design, and technology are the 3 key inputs of your product roadmap. Usually in that order. I’m not ignoring revenue and team/talent requirements — just saying these are usually a result or output of your roadmap. But that’s a different conversation…

Back to the inputs: PMs and product heads are forced to keep up with technology as it drives their engineering conversations. They are also forced to keep up with UX and design trends because it is necessary context for big design decisions. But when it comes to keeping up with customers, they can seemingly rely on other people — sales, deployment teams, company leadership, etc.

I used to make the same mistake: Whenever my schedule looked impossible, the first item I’d strike off was “Mumbai trip: meet customers”.

But as I woke up to the importance of keeping up with customers first-hand, I also realized that it doesn’t have to be a time-consuming, all-in, once-a-quarter trip. This post lists out ways to keep up with customer needs, without disrupting your schedule too much:

  1. Take meetings for the right reasons
  2. Look at what’s important in your analytics
  3. Do support
  4. Use competing products
  5. Read up on the industry and function
  6. Talk to sales
  7. Do post-mortems
  8. Talk to engineers and designers

1. Go meet them

There is no substitute to face time. Particularly in enterprise sales, it is vital to sit down with key customers and prospects, once in a while. Even if it means taking a few days to fly out. The frequency may vary of course, depending on ticket size, release cycles, delivery model, etc. But the need remains.

  • Offer to help with sales meetings, for prospective customers. They’d love to let you handle the demo. Not to mention the “we are serious about you” signal it sends to customers…
  • Take roadmap meetings to take inputs from your existing customers
  • Take what-went-wrong meetings for lost deals, from customers who didn’t buy
  • If you are not an enterprise company, it is still worth it to go meet potential customers, at least initially (this is what I did for our first B2C product). After that, even if you can’t take a day to go meet your users, do try to get them all in for an event or a conference so you can see your work in action.

2. Look at the data they generate

Your analytics are not just for some fringe “growth” PM. Deep data analysis might not be practical for everyone in the product team, but you need to at least keep a casual eye on these:

  • Usage analytics — how are customers using it: This is usually feature usage, usage frequency, and usage flow
  • User analytics — who is using: This may be sliced and diced demographically, functionally, department-wise, etc.

Combine these two, and you’ll get the triggers, or “why” they are using it — solid gold for your product roadmap decisions. Useful for pricing and sales support too.

3. Be support-ive

A product is a little like a relationship. Sometimes, you need to just sit with your significant other, and listen to them unload. Listening to customer complaints gives you that same level of satisfaction and insight. Insight for product folks, can come at two levels:

  1. The actual feature requests / issue reports, which is business-as-usual, and less important
  2. “Strong feelings”: Once you have listened to enough support calls, or read enough support emails, you start getting a “strong feeling” on some aspect of the overall direction of the product. Sometimes it’s a feeling about the tone of your UX writing, sometimes it’s about the user flow, sometimes it’s about the product’s positioning, or even about the unified visual language you are using. These aggregated contact points-led “feelings” turn into solid intuition for your major product decisions

Popular support channels I have used:

  1. Answered emails every other weekend. If you have not promised weekend support, this could be non-invasive and on your terms.
  2. Been the in-app chat responder on holidays. This was extra special because, for some customers, after solving their issue, I’d just introduce myself and ask what they think of the product. Mostly, the experience was positive, and I’d get a little insight, and a lot of confirmations, for our decisions.
  3. Answer the phone every now and then. A side benefit is that support teams can take notes and update their FAQs / scripts.
  4. Go attend one of their get-togethers or conferences. This may only make sense for certain audiences, but if it does, it has the added benefit of building loyalty and creating advocates — vital when selling to individuals. Off-topic: this works in reverse for corporate customers. We invited one of our biggest customers to speak at our annual team retreat. Might help deal sizes go up once they see how dedicated you are, to delighting them.

4. Use competing products

USE, not just read about or research:

  • A ‘parity’ feature may make the difference and help your product reach an acceptable “common minimum”
  • Watching others’ mistakes (and it is always easier to identify it when others make it) — can help find and fix our own
  • And yes, others may have a great idea that you can execute better
  • If nothing else, sales will love you for doing their comparative analysis for them

This is particularly useful when incumbents are more widely used than your product — you will need to find ways to work around existing inertia, and build a solution within established usage patterns

5. Read up

Read up on the customers’ industry(such as retail), or function(such as sales). While books may be time consuming, you can always read CRM meeting notes and set up google alerts.

6. Talk to sales

More specifically, make them gripe to you. Gripes not just about the product, but about their prospects in general.

I find that for most of these issues, the fix is either in product marketing or in the product itself. Once in a while, it’s in their training or in their material — insight that your sales head will appreciate.

Just to be clear, it is not sales’ job to note down granular details of product issues, or ask specific product questions — so you’ll need to trigger the behavior. Make sure to hit them before-after meetings. Every time my sales guy goes into a key meeting, I give him a call before or after it — and make it a call about “how can I help”.

7. Do post-mortems

  • on dropped deals
  • on failed launches
  • on missed revenue targets
  • on abandoned roadmaps

8. Sit with your own engineers and designers

The good ones always know when they are building a lemon — something just won’t feel right.