Break the Biggest Taboo in Product Management
By Michel Roth In this article, I will discuss how you can—and should—break one of the biggest taboos in product management. What’s the big taboo, you ask? It’s customers. More specifically, not listening to your customers. Now don’t start canceling those customer meetings yet; hear me out. You need to know why or you’ll become the most unpopular product manager in the room. Amazon Is Wrong Listening to your customers to find out what you should do with your product in the future can seem like the most sensible thing to do. Just look around. Many of the most successful companies seem to proclaim that the customer is holy and that they’ll do anything to please the customer. For example, Amazon’s leadership principle is: “Leaders start with the customer and work backwards. They work vigorously to earn and keep customer trust. Although leaders pay attention to competitors, they obsess over customers.” Obviously, Amazon isn’t the textbook example of a failed startup, so why am I contradicting what they say? It is because there’s a big difference between what you state in external communications about customers versus how you treat customers (and the things you learn from them) internally within product management. The point I’m making refers to how you should take your customer into account as you evolve and manage your product. Don't Listen to Your Customers You should not listen to customers to decide where to take your product next. The reason for that is easy. For the vast majority of vendors out there, the number of current customers is only a fraction of the total of potential customers. The customers you have today are the result of previous work. If you base the future of your product on those customers—by asking them about their problems, or things they would like to see improved in your product—you’re effectively selling again to the same customer. Usually, this only adds incremental improvements to your product and as such will not allow you to tap into that vast collection of potential customers. It’s your job as a product manager to understand from potential customers what unsolved problems they have. Only then can you create compelling solutions that will allow you to turn these potential customers into actual customers. You have to keep repeating this cycle and never rest because if you don’t, your growth will stagnate, your innovative competitor will land those potential customers and you’ll become a distant memory. Wait. Never listen to your customers? No! It is important to listen to your existing customers. They are a great source of inspiration to see how you can improve your existing capabilities—polishing the proverbial diamond. But you can only polish a diamond so much. At some point you will have to find the next diamond. Great product managers know that the time spent on finding the next diamond should take up the bulk of their resources because, again, it is likely that the number of current customers is only a fraction of the total potential customers out there for you. Yes, it’s not as simple as it sounds. For many companies there is a clear financial incentive to retain existing customers. For example, in more traditional software companies it is common for customers to pay a yearly fee (a percentage of the initial purchase price) to buy the right to upgrade to the latest version. It is even more apparent for vendors that have a subscription-based model. Failing to please existing customers can have a severe financial impact on the business. As you’ve probably experienced, this is not an easy balance to maintain. But no matter how hard it is, you owe it to your product to break the taboo: Happy customers are the Holy Grail. Make sure you spend the majority of your resources talking to potential customers to discover their problems and then solve them. Innovate. Ship. Repeat. Michel Roth is a passionate, pragmatic and experienced B2B product management professional. He has worked in startups and some of the world’s largest tech companies for more than 20 years. Michel is always on the lookout for ways to make the biggest impact on his company’s products and customers. Reach him on Twitter @michelroth or connect with him in LinkedIn at https://nl.linkedin.com/in/michelroth.
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