You visit your field teams and they take you to customers. Every customer you meet is eager to tell you the good and the bad of your solution, and some cool ideas come up in the process: exciting features, promising partnerships, new ways to co-market, and so on.
Those conversations always inspire me, because they fuel me with energy to pursue new development paths. They give me stories from real customers, which I can take back to rally the troops. What’s more, they hint at the potential to create even more value in the market. In some cases, these discussions cause me to rethink priorities, even my overall strategy.
But in my experience, all that excitement is a red flag. When managers get a narrow focus on one customer, feature, or program, they lose sight of their business’s real goals—as well as key market opportunities. And yet, as I’ve seen time and again in many organizations, that single passionate customer anecdote can shift the focus of an entire team, if they don’t take steps to counteract it.
To prevent “last country visited syndrome,” successful organizations develop carefully controlled processes that bring customer inputs into the conversation, then create tension or challenges around those inputs to drive better outcomes. Here’s how to put this process into practice in your organization.
Start with a clear picture of your decision-making protocol.
When you spend a lot of time talking with customers in a particular segment, it’s easy to get fired up about the design changes they’re fired up about. As a passionate marketer, I often find myself wanting to advocate for recommendations from individual customers. After all, learning from our customers is crucial for shaping the direction of the business.
It’s equally crucial, though, to create a customer feedback environment where great ideas are not only welcomed, but also challenged and vetted in a systemic, non-passionate way.
Be clear on the opportunity—then align around it.
Instead of first focusing on changes you’d like to make, make sure everyone is clear on the opportunity versus the solution. Once you’ve zeroed in on a promising opportunity, start mapping out the territory: Who is your target audience? How large is it? What are their goals?
What you’re looking for, in other words, is your TAM (total addressable market), along with the business metrics you’ll derive from that market, such as revenue, annualized return rate (ARR), or, for a specific feature, active use (MAU). Without alignment around a specific opportunity and set of metrics, the decision-making process often hits a bottleneck. Meetings circle around the same questions without ever arriving at a definitive answer. And worst of all, your vision of a measurable outcome gets lost in the dialog.
Once you start customizing your product for a specific customer segment, it’s all too easy to tumble down the rabbit hole of implementing increasingly niche features. If you fail to notice this trend and take steps to counteract it, you may soon find yourself with a product that’s extremely useful to a small group of customers—and all but useless to most of your original user base.
Pinpoint what you know about your customer.
Tax software giant Intuit is a star example of integrating customer feedback throughout its design process. The company’s “Follow Me Home” program treats users as development partners, filtering every new feature through a rigorous customer validation process. How do you get insight into what the customer is trying to do? What are their goals? What are their friction points in getting this done?
To cite a classic example, no customer segment was asking for smartphones before smartphones existed. If phone manufacturers had relied exclusively on customer feedback to shape their product development, they would have kept building better flip-phones, because that’s all their customers were asking for: more niche versions of products that already existed.
We’re now entering an age in which vast volumes of customer behavioral data are becoming available. In many cases, we can even obtain this data on prospective customers, via third-party sources. The question now is what to do with all that data. What insights can we derive from it? How do we leverage it to justify a particular development path?
Factor in the opportunity cost.
We’re often taught that winning the argument is the measure of success in business, so we advocate aggressively for the features, goals, and market positions that matter to us. An even more powerful approach, however, is to invite your team to debate the pros and cons of each development path. What alternatives are there? What would each path require us to give up?
Every entry in your feature backlog is a precious resource. Each time you add a specialized feature to your development schedule, you’re allocating time away from features that might address a greater range of customer needs. And your favorite customers aren’t always the best at identifying where those larger needs lie.