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Over the years, we have seen at Vanilla the real power of customer communities in helping organizations at the tops of their fields through product feedback and innovation. From uncovering unusual ways customers are using products to elaborate workarounds when asked how to solve a specific problem with a product, your customers are your primary allies in building a better product. 

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5 min

Mel Attia
Victoria Burt

Scaling Product Feedback for Product Managers

10 minute read

March 2, 2021

Over the years, we have seen at Vanilla the real power of customer communities in helping organizations at the tops of their fields through product feedback and innovation. From uncovering unusual ways customers are using products to elaborate workarounds when asked how to solve a specific problem with a product, your customers are your primary allies in building a better product. 

In this blog series, I take a deep dive into managing all this information flowing to product management teams and making better decisions by reconciling both internal and external sources of information. You’ll notice that I try to be agnostic with the how, and focus heavily on the what. Each organization builds customer intimacy differently. 

My hope is that if you have an existing online community that may have a different purpose, like a community of practice or a customer support community, that you’ll be able to work with your community manager to engage your customers and get their feedback directly on your product vision. And if you don’t have a community right now, that this series becomes a catalyst for you to consider this path of engagement with your customers. 

If we take a step back and look at it: product feedback is, quite simply, using the information you have about your customers, their needs, and the market in which you operate to create new products and features. 

Putting together the right people with the right ideas at the right time for the right market takes time, resources, and input from all of your stakeholders. And while it can be challenging, it can also be very rewarding. 

Here’s the kicker: businesses who leave their customers out of this feedback loop are missing out on amazing opportunities to outstep competitors and better address market needs. Your customers and internal stakeholders offer a unique feedback loop that fuses creative ideas with real-world experiences to provide highly valuable insight. 

As with all things related to customers, there’s art and science to effectively dealing with each of their ideas. With so many voices vying for attention, you need a means of effectively dealing with all of the data that will come your way.

Their opinion is important, not just because they are your customers, but because they’re the ones who use the product regularly. They know what they want — it will be up to your team to assess what they actually need. And, you’ll learn how to keep your team members involved throughout this entire process. 

In this three part blog series, I’m going to provide you with the strategy you’ll need to deal with and the common pitfalls that come with opening up the inevitable floodgate of feedback  that comes when asking  customers for their input. This first article will touch on the role of customers, internal stakeholders and challenges of opinions without data. The second blog will discuss how to work with qualitative and quantitative feedback, how real organizations are doing this well and the last article will discuss important success factors along with additional tips and tricks.

Your Customers Are Your Most Valuable Innovation Asset

You’re probably slammed with feedback from multiple sources on a daily basis. You might be wondering why on earth would you want MORE sources of feedback. I hear you. What you need is not more information but better, more centralized information.

We can all agree that you’re searching for relevant data that you can use for product improvements and innovation. You’re looking to prioritize real opportunities from the noise. You want for your product to be the best that it can be. You want the best possible means of gathering information.

This is where engaging your customers the right way can become an incredibly valuable asset. They are using, testing, adapting, and stretching your product to the breaking point. It’s amazing how customers will find unusual ways to use your products — methods your development team may have never thought of when building it.

 

And more than that, they’ll be likely to form strong opinions about what works and what doesn’t. Rest assured, they will not be afraid to share this information if given the opportunity.

The great part of product feedback from customers is their level of freedom to speak their minds. They do not have the constraints that those inside of an organization might have. As such, they have complete freedom and flexibility in how they offer their feedback.

Customers love when they're brought into the "inner circle" of a company. The ability to provide feedback gives them a sense of belonging. And more than that, it gives them a sense of pride — someone is valuing their opinion. It's a powerful motivator to continue to contribute to the organization’s continuous improvement initiatives.

There's a lot of good that can come from the data you'll collect from your customers. That said, you'll want to be careful in the language that you use when asking your customers for feedback.

The reality is that not all feedback is going to be useful. It's easy to set an expectation that you might not be able to fulfill through the simple act of asking for feedback. Not all feedback will be actionable. There may be requests or suggestions that will be difficult and costly to put in place. Some may not fit the vision of where the company wants to head. Others may only provide benefit to a small group of customers.

The best way to handle this is by setting expectations from the very beginning. Start by being honest with your customers. By doing so, they'll continue to offer you valuable feedback. And, of course, you get to choose which of the feedback you use in your ideation exercises.

Next, let's get into how you're going to involve internal stakeholders in this process. From there, we'll sort out how to put this information together into intelligence that you can use to take action. 

  • Make a promise to your customers that you will read all contributions. Be crystal clear that you might not act on every piece of feedback.

  • It is crucial that customers understand you value them, and their opinions. But, the final decisions on product changes/improvements will rest with the company.
  • Although they might have a huge range of ideas, these might not be the best ideas for your product or roadmap.

Consider Interested Internal Stakeholders

Internal Stakeholders are, of course, also a hugely important source of ideas and feedback. Your sales, success and support channels are your ear to the ground and a vital touch point for understanding what is working and why.

Consider also the value that including other, non traditional departments or team members can have. It can be easy to overlook departments such as HR or Legal because “it’s not in their remit” or “they’re too busy” but ideation can come from any staff member.

Too often, certain departments feel isolated and excluded from the conversation. Ensuring all voices are captured not only spreads your likelihood of success, but creates a culture of togetherness that can eradicate the silos that might exist internally.

Be mindful of the dangers of product management by opinion and last customer conversation.

It’s easy for an emotional response to sway a considered, data driven decision, especially when an excited or angry customer conversation is still top-of-mind.

The Product Feedback Loop 

The Product Feedback Loop is a multi-faceted approach. It is a blend of both new and old forms of qualitative and quantitative data collection. Using this method, you'll be able to gather feedback at scale.

Let’s walk through an example journey to understand the challenges that you might experience:

Our New Product : ACME WIDGET

ACME WIDGET launches their product. They capture a manageable amount of customer feedback through a mixture of spreadsheets and documents. This seems to be a sensible approach but already the first problem is on the horizon — on its own, this doesn’t scale.

ACME WIDGET is beginning to gain traction. The feedback accelerates and becomes difficult to handle. Ideas and insights are being lost and prioritization is becoming harder and harder.

Additionally feedback from other internal teams and channels is arriving. Now you're getting ideas from people about how they think the product should evolve. They're pointing out bugs that people are finding. And now reaction to customer feedback, and a myriad of other input is creating the perfect storm.

Too much time is being spent...

    • Collecting and aggregating feedback from customers
    • Working with internal stakeholders to add what they want and what they hear from customers.
    • In meetings, trying to convince and appease people

Too little time is being spent...

    • Doing meaningful analysis that can move the needle and improve the product
    • Focusing on making the right decisions and utilizing colleagues time and skills effectively

As a result...

    • Decisions are being made on opinions. The loudest voices are changing the outcome

This often leads to...

    • Bad prioritization, lack of focus and skewed decision making. This derails and masks the great data and feedback at your fingertips

Your Opinion Although Interesting...

Let's look at some common challenges that arise during product discussions

Here’s one that we’ve all seen. Sometimes the flow and direction of a product discussion can get derailed by the loudest voice at the table. This doesn’t mean that the speaker is being aggressive or seeking to derail the conversation. 

It might be that the last customer conversation they had is influencing their opinion. They're attempting to do their best for that customer. The problem is that they've lost sight of the big picture. Your responsibility as a product manager (directly or indirectly) is keep your eye on your product’s true unique value proposition. 

Likewise, forms of cognitive bias such as direct involvement with the product idea or development can form feelings of ownership. This circumstance can cloud or skew judgment.

Within any organization, internal politics can come into play. Whether these are known to you and the working group or not, stakeholders in other areas of the business (often at the top of the tree) can assert influence based on:  

  • Past experiences (“this worked last year”) 
  • Personal thoughts (“my gut feeling is this will work”) 
  • A lack of clear understanding around what the customer feedback actually is (“I’m pretty sure they said…”)

How do you guard your roadmap from getting derailed? We’ll take a look at this in our next blog on Working with Qualitative and Quantitative Feedback.

For now, if you are looking for additional resources, check these out!

Product Management

Mel Attia

Written by Mel Attia

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