After my stint building products in a couple of successful Indian technology product companies, I will be sharing some of my learning and experiences in a series of posts here. Here are a few random thoughts more to shake off my own writer’s block. Going forward, I will look to take up new areas from my thought process and also add more on the thoughts presented below.
1. Listen to the customer, even when they are clueless (and many times, they are): On and off you will get feature requests from customers who have absolutely no clue as to why they want it…..but they want it…. TODAY!!!! They will even offer to buy your product if you added that feature. When you enquire as to what they need from that particular feature the answers are usually vague – on the lines of “we heard this is the latest”. Its just that most of them read somewhere that this particular feature is the latest and they couldn’t be bothered to read more and thought it cool to display that new learnt jargon.
While customer inputs can come in a very useful pointers for you to gauge the customer’s pain point (which is why I ask you to listen to the customer), the product manager needs to have his or her own view of how things fit into the product roadmap. Even during this listening process, make a keen judgement of their problem statement and their solution statement (after all in most cases when they give you a feature request, they are giving you both the problem and the solution)….. and try to solve their problem, instead of taking their solution too seriously.
A very good point was made by Jason Fried on this in his blogs. The crux of his blog was, “carefully read each feature request that you get from customers and then throw it away”. His point was not that you should not listen to feature requests. Its just that there is no need to get analytical about it. If it were such an important feature that you missed, you will hear it over and over again and you wont miss it. AND….. in the event of a brilliant feature that comes up once in a blue moon from some smart user, it will stand up to be spotted and you wont miss it. I even tried this. I made a huge list of feature requests that we had got and put feature count against each, ended up with something that looked like a grocery list and picked the top few. Then I talked to my customer support lead and asked him what he thought we should take up for the next release and his top-of-the-mind-recall top few were no different from mine
2. Importance of speed: Any market in which you make money will quickly get crowded. While you can still distinguish your offering with a great product, the fact remains that it gets a wee bit harder. Its important to make maximum use of this window where you came into the party early. Drink fast, the beer will run out soon. When one of my first products was released there were exactly 3 people in our development team. We prided ourselves on the high productivity levels and the team size did not go up significantly over the next 2 quarters. In hindsight maybe we should have gone for the jugular much earlier. The rule “If 10 people can do a project in 10 months, putting 20 people will make it 20 months” is more often mentioned as a joke, than as a truth. If we were to do the same thing again (which thankfully one cannot), we would have wanted to scale up the team more rapidly and accelerate the pace of development. Even in established markets, speed can make
3. Instant support: This is somewhat similar to serving steaming hot food in cold weather. If you are running a hotel in Chicago in winter, your first priority should be to serve the food hot, the taste comes next. Now I am not saying serve tasteless food, Im just saying attach the highest priority to the temperature of the food. By serving it hot, you have passed the big initial test. Customer support is similar. Just put yourself in the customer’s shoe. You buy a product, face an issue and send a mail to tech support (hoping that it would be responded to within the next 24 hours) and 5 minutes later, BANG, there a call and a guy says, “Hello, I am John from the customer support team of Acme. we just got your support request”. Even if that guy is going to go on to say, “we are analyzing it and will get back to you with in a day” the customer might only be slightly disappointed. You have scored major brownie points with this instant call. We have done this time and again and the results are almost always excellent. Even in cases where we don’t immediately have a solution, its a excellent idea to call immediately and tell him that the issue has been received, apologize for the inconvenience and assure him that the issue will be resolved very soon. In my opinion, there is no excuse for not calling when the customer has specifically provided his contact number in his request. This creates the WOW effect. Thanks to pitiable support levels that are generally available in the industry, this is a great opportunity for us the differentiate ourselves (and of course we already do). Thankfully, we have competitor who responds with a “Please leave your call back number and our engineers will return the call within 2 working days”.
4. Have the right people in customer facing roles: This is not to be read as “Have the wrong people in the non-customer facing roles”. After the product itself, the guys in the customer facing roles are the biggest thing the world sees of the product. Especially during the evaluation process, the customer makes much of his impression about your offering based on what he hears from these guys. This guy needs to FEEL that he has a great product, in fact, even before he has a great product. This strong belief is what carries through even when he has to say something as humbling as “Yes. It is a bug. We apologize for this”. When you have doubts about your products ability in your own mind, it is hard to hide when talking to some one. It is very easy for the listener to spot this. You want these guys to be polite and friendly and knowledgeable. But much more importantly, you want these guys to convey to the customer that we know what we are talking about. Add a slightly squeeze of ability to bullshit (come on, you cant be in customer facing roles unless you can bull shit a bit) and you have the right customer facing guy.