As Product Managers, we make decisions every day. It’s the core of our job. We have many mental models, frameworks, processes, and tools to help us make better decisions. Still, in the end, no matter which technique we choose to use to make these decisions, what is fundamental is two things: how we better understand our objective and our context and how we communicate these decisions. Customer feedback can help us to think and design both processes.
The main pillar of any decision is to clearly understand its objective. In other words, what we want to achieve. Without that, the decision itself is purposeless and impossible to qualify, as will not have a clear criterion to confront different possibilities, and, ultimately, you will not be able to evaluate your results.
The second piece is the context. The context can completely change how we evaluate one decision. What is the customer’s perception of this problem? What is the company’s urgency to solve this? How many resources do we have? How are our competitors dealing with this same problem? Etc. Understanding the context is probably where we should spend the majority of our time as Product Managers, and that’s why Product Discovery has become such a hot topic in the industry nowadays and where Product Intuition plays an important role.
How much time must you invest in understanding the context of decision-making?
After this scenario is clear, the next big thing is to define how much time we want to invest to better understand the context of our decision and which techniques we will use. Defining the right amount of time is usually directly related to the complexity and importance of the decision. For example, if the decision we are making is hard to change and very impactful for the business, we should invest a lot of time to guarantee an excellent decision. But, on the other hand, if the decision is easy to change, which happens most frequently, or not so important, we should make this decision as fast as possible. And it is in this last type of decision that Product Intuition is particularly important.
The few really hard decisions we have to make are where we will use a bunch of different techniques to mitigate as many risks as possible. Here we can rely on market tendencies, competitors’ benchmarks, market experts, financial analysis, product analytics, customer research, customer feedback, internal feedback, and a myriad of other information sources. Of course, with the increasing number of product-centric companies, in which customer perception is fundamental and we see them as the fuel for product innovation, the relative importance of customer feedback and customer research is rising every day.
How PMs can leverage customer feedback to make better and faster decisions
Here is where things start to become more interesting. After interviewing almost 100 product professionals at Birdie to figure out how to help Product Managers better understand their customers in order to make successful product decisions, we found a great opportunity to improve product intuition in product professionals and facilitate how PMs can leverage customer feedback to make better and faster decisions, even in more complex scenarios.
The fact is, we, as PMs, are sitting in a gold mine of customer knowledge that we are underusing. And we need to change that. More than a decade ago companies like Amplitude and Mixpanel revolutionized how we use customer behavior to make product decisions, and today these kinds of tools are table stakes in any product management software stack. But when we talk about customer perception, we are still in the stone age.
When we are creating a new product, like we are doing here at Birdie, it’s a no-brainer that is important for the product team to talk to customers and leverage any kind of customer feedback data point. In a new product, usually with few initial customers, especially if it is a B2B product, it’s relativity easy to be connected with almost all your customers and to read the great majority of customers’ inputs, like support tickets, win/lost reasons, NPS surveys, etc. In this stage we essentially have just qualitative data to make product decisions, given the product usage data available is inexistent or insignificant. And, for pre-PMF products, it’s very important to PMs stay connected with the customer to better understand them, identify who could become some sort of ICP (Ideal Customer Profile), and start to form product intuition.
For qualitative data, the problem begins when your customer base starts growing significantly, in a way that it becomes impossible to read every customer feedback or talk to the majority of your customers. Usually, in mature products, PMs rely more on product behavior data, quantitative research, and second-hand customer feedback provided by customer support, customer success, sales, research, or insights teams, for example. The problem with this approach is that you significantly slow down your capacity to improve product intuition and decision-making velocity, especially for new PMs.
Creating a Feedback River
How can we leverage customer feedback to make better product decisions? Based on our research and experience the best way to do that is to create some sort of Feedback River, to maintain the habit of being close to your customers, even if you will just be able to process a small part of these feedback inputs manually. In the future we will be able to use AI technologies, like Machine Learning and NLP to automate this process, I can guarantee that. But for now, even if you read just a few amounts of feedback every day, it will be a big cultural win.
Ok, but what exactly is a Feedback River? The general idea, popularised by Sachin Rekhi, is to centralize in one place multiple sources of customer feedback. In the beginning, this central repository could be a Slack channel or you can use Google Sheets, Jira, Trello, etc. The important thing here is to canalize feedback coming from support tickets, NPS surveys, discussion forums, win/lost reasons, survey forms, or any other relevant feedback source, to a single place, where the product team will be able to read, learn and share customer perceptions.
Will this rough Feedback River solve all the problems? Of course not, but it is a good first step to get us out of the stone age. In an ideal world, to evolve product intuition and make better decisions, I would recommend as the best alternative to talk to and listen to every single customer, always. But as I said, this is impossible at scale. Even implementing a routine to directly interview customers every week is hard, especially if you don’t have a research team to help you select and schedule customer interviews. So, does that mean that we can’t implement a continuous discovery process? The answer is also no.
The benefits of have a Feedback River
As I said, when we have a Feedback River in place, we can easily have access to a lot of customer inputs, and this is the first step. The second step is to create the habit to read these feedback records every day. Personally, I like to do this in the morning, for example, 10 to 15 minutes every day. When I had a bigger customer base, usually the first thing I did when I opened up my notebook was to read some customer feedback. This helped me a lot to understand what was happening with my customer base, understand customer perception over time and even notice something new or strange. It would be even better if I could read every single customer feedback, but just a few of them was enough to help me feel closer to my customers, have some recurring issues at the top of my mind, generate some new hypotheses, judge faster some ideas and suggestions, and better select customers to invest my time in the right customer interviews.
Another important benefit of having a Feedback River is to improve collaboration and customer empathy between all the people involved in the product development process. Once you have a centralized place where customers’ feedback lives, people can easily access these feedback inputs and leave comments to other team members, make questions and bring up some new ideas. This happens almost naturally, because the majority of the product professionals, including engineers, like to be closer to the customer. The problem is that today it is usually hard to do that, and then they end up deprioritizing this. Once it becomes easier, the magic happens, and then you have a team in which everybody is consuming customer perceptions, improving empathy, and increasing their product intuition. All these things together make the quality of the product decisions, as a team, increase exponentially.
Finally, after all the work to deeply understand your objectives and context to make the right decisions, you will need to communicate these decisions to many different stakeholders. As a PM, if all the product team members are already consuming the Feedback River and participating in the discovery process, it will be way easier for you to get the team’s buy-in. In fact, the team will be already part of the decision-making process. For external stakeholders, like leaders of other areas that didn’t participate in the discovery process for example, with the Feedback River you will be able to easily get some customer quotes and quantify customer feedback to exemplify and justify why your team is making a specific decision. Together with quantitative data analysis, customer feedback works pretty well to get stakeholders’ buy-in and reduce the HiPPO problem. The customer is king, and we need to leverage that.
The importance of connect customer feedback with product strategy
Of course, listening to the customer is extremely important but, without a good product strategy, all this effort is almost insignificant to the company. I’m saying this because, in my personal experience as a product leader, I’m always astonished at how incredibly common it is that companies don’t have a product strategy. In these cases, listening to the customer could have a dark side, where we just react to feedback, without thinking about what is interesting to our company or not. The customer should not be responsible for our product strategy. Our strategy is our business, not theirs. So we should listen to the customer to better understand them, and through that achieve better company results considering our strategy. And not just do what they want, without thinking about the consequences.
I hope this article was insightful for you. I believe that with the right tools we can leverage customer feedback to improve product intuition, find problems and opportunities faster, make better and quick product decisions, collaborate and align teams, and discover the why behind the what of many behaviors we identify. But above all this, deeply understanding our customers will make us create better product cultures and ultimately better products, that really solve customer problems and make our companies even more successful. Companies that understand the importance of deeply understanding their customers and are seeing the product as the core of their business will shape our future, and I wish we can be part of that, together.
As I mentioned above, here in Birdie, we are developing a solution that allows you to consolidate customer feedback from multiple sources and uses Machine Learning and NLP to automate the process of categorizing and analyzing customer feedback, something that will help Product teams save countless hours of manual work while getting the benefits we discussed here.
If you’re interested in testing the tool for free, you can join our waitlist.