I originally wrote this post a couple of years ago, but some recent experiences with customers reminded me of it. Some customers are really easy and great to work with, while others are quite the opposite. Guess who has more influence with Product Management?
This is an open letter to B2B (enterprise software) customers, though much of the following also applies to customers of other types of products.
Do you want to influence product direction with the vendors of the products you use?
If so, here is some information that can significantly increase your influence with the Product Management teams in the companies you deal with. And it doesn’t just depend on how much money you’ve spent or plan on spending with a given vendor. Even mid-sized and smaller enterprises can exert tremendous influence if they follow these rules.
Caveat Lector* – There’s no guarantee that all of these apply in all cases, just like any general advice, it’s pretty good most of the time, and the times it’s not, it probably better than nothing. 🙂
1. Build a good working relationship with Product Management
Just as you didn’t see your purchase of our product as a one-off transaction, but part of an ongoing relationship with our company, neither did we. While I can’t vouch for how your sales rep has treated you — most are pretty good but some just want to close the deal and move on — I can say that for Product Managers, we want to build strong customer relationships. It’s one of the foundations for our success.
And as we’re not trying to overtly sell you products, the conversations you have with us will be very different that those you have with your sales reps. Be open and honest with us and we will definitely reciprocate.
2. Help us understand how you use our product
Although we have a good *general* sense of what you are doing with our product, unless we’ve spent a lot of time with you, and I’m talking about face-time, not phone conversations, we’re rather hazy on the details of what you’re doing with our product. So if we visit or call you to discuss your use of our product, don’t be surprised if we ask what seem like some very basic questions about product use.
Be patient and help us understand. The more we understand exactly what you are (and aren’t) doing with our product, AND the reasons why, the better we can advocate for your needs when we get back to the office and into product planning sessions.
3. Definitely help us understand your environment and processes
This is huge. Although we may have some idea of what you are doing with our product, we know very little about the processes within your company and the environment you work in. And when I say “environment”, it’s not simply the technical IT environment, but the business environment that is the context for your use of our product.
Now don’t get me wrong, we’re not completely ignorant, but every company is different. There are different roles, different processes, different objectives, different constraints, different organizational structures etc. The more you can do to enlighten us in these areas, the better picture we can build of your world and the value our product can deliver therein.
For example: We don’t necessarily know what regulatory impact various laws have on you or what new laws are coming in the near future that will impact you, and how you plan to address them. What can (or must) we do to help you implement your plan?
4. Tell us about your (big) problems, not just the new features you want
OK, this may sound a bit counter to what you hear from us — we always seem to be talking about new releases and roadmaps and feature enhancements — but first and foremost we care about problems. Your problems.
Why? Because a big part of our jobs is to understand those problems more deeply than anyone else in the company and to use and convey that knowledge in product planning.
Yes, Customer Support hears all about your day-to-day problems and they help you address those. But we’re not really that interested in those kinds of problems. 🙂
We want to hear about your big problems. OK, not all of your big problems, but at least those big problems that we can potentially help address. Think big, and be (a bit) selfish.
- Are there business or technical issues that keep you up at night (literally)? Tell us.
- Is there something that might prevent you from getting your bonus? We want to know.
- If you could use our product to help your business meet some critical goals, please share.
It’s not that we won’t listen to feature requests — we will — but when you ask for a feature, the first words out of our mouth will almost certainly be “Why? Why do you need that?” We need to understand the problems because deep down we aggregate information and pattern match. If we see many customers having similar problems, we can justify pushing those problems to the top of the list to be addressed in upcoming releases.
5. Don’t underestimate the amount of political $#!% we have to deal with in product planning
We don’t talk about it much externally, but our company is about as political as yours, possibly more so. There are the usual power structures, political agendas, internal fiefdoms and random insanity that exist when any group of people are put together and have jobs to do.
Product planning is a very political process. Why? Creating product takes resources – people, money, time. And these are all precious commodities that people want to control. As much as every company will talk about being on the same team — and while that is generally true in well run companies — not all companies are well run and not everyone is a team player. Also not all customer or market problems are treated equally. It’s very Darwinian to be honest.
But the upside is, the more information we have about the problems, the value and the business impact/benefit, the better we can advocate for and defend our requests for resources. That’s how the game works.
6. The more accessible you are to us, the more influence you’ll have with us
You’re busy, we understand that. But we are too. And if you don’t return emails, or we have to hound you to get a phone call or you only call us when you have a problem, we’re not going to put a lot of credence in what you have to say. If other companies are more responsive, guess who we’re going to talk to?
You may have spent a boatload of money with us last year, and your sales rep may be very attentive because she went to Club and bought a new BMW with the commission.
But we didn’t see any of that commission and we didn’t get an exotic vacation because of your purchase (even though we flew out twice to your site during the sales process; once during a critical part of the POC and later to give a roadmap presentation to your executives).
Our currency is access. If you are accessible to us, even if you’re not a F500 company, we will value that. And while those large, loud companies with big wallets will have influence, you can have greater influence simply by responding promptly to our emails, returning our phone calls, updating us on your progress etc. It all goes back to the relationship we have with you.
So there it is. There may be one or two other ways to influence our product direction – like having your CEO befriend our CEO and get your message across that way. Yes, that can work, but our CEO is not a patsy and I’m sure the things your CEO cares about are not exactly the same things that you care about.
You use our product regularly. You see it’s strengths and shortcomings. You know better than anyone what it can and can’t do for you; which of your problems it can and can’t address. That’s incredibly valuable knowledge. Share it with us. You’ll be doing both of us a big favour.
* Caveat Lector: Latin for “reader beware”
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