The Importance of NOT Doing What Customers Ask

By Michel Roth Imagine you’re building the next Ferrari. What if you reduced the number of cylinders in the engine because one customer asked you to? Or if you added extra-large side view mirrors for another customer? You’d end up with a car that isn’t worthy of carrying the Ferrari name; it would be a huge failure. But if this is so clear, why is the problem disturbingly common in B2B software products? As strange as it may sound, customers are great at killing products. And it’s up to you to stop them. Here’s what happens all too often: soon after a product is finished, you land your first customer. Champagne (or Cava, since you’re in startup mode) for everyone! Success continues as you add several more customers. After a while, one customer stands out, either because they are the largest (meaning they represent a significant portion of the company income) or they are the most well-known brand. This customer is a raving fan of your product. However, they just need one thing added to make it even better—usually yesterday. You hadn’t planned on doing this, but since you don’t want to disappoint or risk losing this customer, you create that feature. Another common scenario is when sales mentions a lucrative opportunity with Gigant Inc., … just one feature is missing that would ink the deal. Fast forward five years and your product is a mess, expensive to maintain, impossible to navigate and difficult to configure. What happened? You had such a brilliant, clear vision. What happened is that the customer killed the product. More specifically, you allowed the customer kill the product. Is it really that bad to add one feature for an important customer? Yes. Once you go down that path, it won’t be a one-time occurrence. It will happen again and again. First, when you descend into the rat hole of building features for one customer, you effectively alienate other customers from your product. Even worse, you alienate yourself from your product. This will not end well. A common mistake is that, because you may not immediately notice any negative effect on your product when you first implement a custom feature for a customer, you’ll assume that no harm has been done. But the damage has been done and is effectively irreversible. Over time, you’ll discover that your product has become hard to support because it morphed into an illogical collection of features. And all the great plans to go back later and fix it will never come to fruition. Your product may become hard to configure for new customers and difficult to market because it has become a Jack of all trades, master of none. It’s exactly what you wanted to prevent when you first had your idea. Another problem that stems from building features for specific customers is that your roadmap is effectively out the window. If you find yourself adding something for a specific customer in every release, your roadmap will be as much a surprise to you as it is to your customers, and it will be fatal to your product. It’s important to have the power to say “no.” If you are in a startup, proper funding gives you the financial buffer to say “no.” If you’re in a larger company, make sure you have executive support and signoff for your plan. And watch out for “Product Stockholm Syndrome,” a common condition that I’ve seen at multiple companies. That’s when companies are such big fans of a certain customer that they think that customer’s feature request is representative of all customers. In the beginning, building custom features may seem like a great idea, but it is a textbook example of short-term thinking. It is essential to remain focused on the vision for your product. Otherwise, it will wreak havoc on your ability to achieve product success. After all, there’s nothing more important than investing in the success of your product, and ultimately, in the success of your company. 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
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