How to manage customer input in product development

Business & tech

This article was originally published on Forbes.

In the business-to-business world, where the goal is to empower customers to better run their businesses and succeed, customer relationships resemble partnerships where all sides are invested in finding the best solution. Incorporating customer input in product development is one way to strengthen these partnerships. Timely customer feedback can also prevent costly mistakes and help design better solutions that more people will pay for.

This seems straightforward. But in the real world, customers are a diverse group with wide-ranging needs. Some of them are more vocal than others. Some ask for features that don’t align with your product road map. Having a strategy or guidelines will help you stay focused.

Based on my 14 years of experience in leading product teams and growing my company, here are five tips on managing customer feedback. I use examples from software development (my area of expertise), but the tips are applicable across industries.

1. Remember you’re the expert

Customers can tell you the exact product features they want and point you in the right direction. But at the end of the day, you’re in charge of designing solutions. In software development, a seemingly simple customer-facing feature might require building complex underlying technology. Customers might not know or care about all the decisions and steps involved in fulfilling a single customer request. It’s your responsibility to figure it all out. Is the requested feature the best solution for that specific problem? Is there a more effective solution? Are there any prerequisites?

All that behind-the-scenes work reminds me of a computer game called Civilization, which uses a technology tree to illustrate what all it takes to “build an empire to stand the test of time.” You can’t invent nanotechnology without first researching and developing composites and lasers. Product development is sometimes a lot like that: you have to research and develop some of the prerequisite technologies before you can fulfill customer requests.

2. Analyze & organize customer feedback

As you talk to different customers, you accumulate a lot of information. Synthesize it to come up with features, requirements or a solution that’s generic or adaptable enough to solve most of what your customers want while being broadly applicable to future customer needs. That’s part of the art of product design that is often the most difficult to perfect.

Sometimes when my team and I talk to the first 10-15 customers, we don’t have a clear idea of what we’re going to eventually design. After these initial conversations, we analyze the feedback, and by the time we talk to our next group of customers, we have a better understanding of what we want to do.

While analyzing customer requests, you might change your mind or rearrange the order in which you will deliver different features (remember the technology tree analogy). To make sure both your team and your customers are clear on expectations, set clear priorities.

3. Decide on priorities

When speaking to customers, we often find that customers perceive product development as a fast process where you can turn requests into features within weeks. In reality, depending on the company, it can take months or even years to build new products and features.

Decide on priorities to avoid making unrealistic promises, getting sidetracked or missing goals.

There’s an adage in software design that you can control any two out of three priorities: time to market, product quality and cost. So if you choose to prioritize both the time to market and product quality, the cost is going to go way up because you’ll need to employ more resources to meet your tight deadline and high quality bar. If you choose to optimize lowering product cost and keep a high bar on quality, your time to market will be stretched out.

4. Set clear & honest expectations

After you have synthesized all the information and determined your priorities, you can set clear expectations with your customers. How long will it take to deliver? Will the end result be exactly what your customers asked for? Will you ship it at all?

As we listen to our customers, we often get a wish list of exactly what they want, and they expect quick follow-through. Keeping our customers up-to-date on where we are in the design process and where we think we might end up helps us to manage expectations.

Once you’ve set clear expectations, commit to check-ins. Get back to a customer during the initial product development or beta period, or ask them for additional feedback on what you’ve envisioned.

At my company, we keep quite a close level of communication with early customers, usually checking in every three to six months. Find a cadence that works for you.

5. Know your customers

Get to know your customers—not only what they want, but also what they can afford and what they’re willing to pay for.

In the software industry, for example, there is a big difference between building products for large enterprises versus mid-market companies. Large companies can afford to pay for expensive and flexible platforms, while mid-market companies don’t have that kind of cash to throw around. Yet, mid-market customers still want almost all the capabilities and flexibility of enterprise software, without having to pay for implementation costs and the length of time it takes to set up these large complex systems. That’s why at my company, we use a mid-market lens and modern technologies to design user experiences based on what we know about our customers’ needs.

Incorporating customer feedback in product development is a powerful way to reaffirm your commitment to customers. The degree to which that feedback is effective depends on you. Use the above tips to frame your own approach.

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