Product & Growth Tips

With the right data and communication strategy, companies can keep the focus on customers

Christopher Gillespie

By now, most of us have at least heard a synopsis of the 5,000-word blog post written about Google’s failure to innovate. In it, former Google employee Steve Yegge laments that the company has become too obsessed with its competitors and, as a result, has built products that customers don’t really want. And this is at a company whose internal credo is “Focus on the user and all else will follow.” Point being, even companies that care about centering the customer struggle with doing it well as they scale up.

Still, problems arise even when everyone agrees that a strong connection with users is key to staying ahead. As organizations grow, so does the distance between them and their users, and it becomes more difficult to keep that connection alive. Each team expands and specializes until very few individuals interact directly with users. When they do, their view is limited.

Sales teams focus on new customers. Customer success teams only talk to existing ones. Marketers over-prioritize managing campaigns, engineers revert to building whatever is thrown over the fence by designers, and product teams tend to interact exclusively with enthusiastic fans.

“Back when I was a consultant, I watched it happen over and over,” said Josh Decker, a UX researcher at Meetup, recently acquired by WeWork. “Each team assumes they’re experts on the customer but they’re too removed to know.”

When the vast majority of employees are removed from customers, it grows weak and things spiral out of control. Teams don’t build what the customer wants; they build what they think the customer wants – and there’s a big difference.

Most people aren’t very good at putting themselves in others’ shoes. They suffer from projection bias, where they assume that others will like the same things they do. Just like a toddler trying to force an adult to eat Play-Doh, professionals project their own interests onto the customer.

Engineers prioritize features they think pose a fun challenge. Marketers speak as they’d want to be spoken to, and product teams, often their own power users, build the features they’d like to see. According to Conway’s law, this self-focus manifests itself physically: companies build products that reflect their own communication structures.

A handful customer advocates can’t fix a structural problem 

No matter the size or stage of the company, every person in it should know what kind of customer data is collected, where it is stored, and how to access it. For digital products, analytics offers a low-hanging fruit by capturing billions of product events and then storing the data for future analysis.

Of course, analytics should always be paired with direct user contact. User research, interviews, surveys, and testing can provide deeper ethnographic insights into the thoughts and feelings of customers.

There is also no understating the value of company-wide diversity in understanding users. In order to make decisions informed by customer feedback or behavior, it often takes a person with similar experiences and abilities to the user to understand what they need from the product.

Teams can also tap into the segment of customers who desperately want to share their thoughts. Some call these insight groups, advisory boards, user groups, or communities, and they’re much more than a marketing tool. LinkedIn, for example, launched its most important desktop redesign in the past ten years based on feedback from its 68,000-person strong insight community.

When companies invite a free flow of customer information, they open the door to epiphanies. But they aren’t obvious and sometimes, customer requests aren’t literal.

Decoding user signals

Teams should consider unrefined user feedback as a soft signal, but not insight in and of itself. “The things users ask for are rarely the things they actually want,” says Decker, whose role as a UX researcher is to uncover users’ true needs. “It takes somebody who understands the business needs, the user needs, and can see what customers are really asking for to decode their requests.”

At Meetup, Decker finds that users who want to join a group will often ask indirect questions. They want to know how big the group is or how long it’s been around. But what they really want to know is if it’s credible and safe. Meetup can answer the question behind the question by simply showing users that they have friends in the group.

Unfortunately, silos, distributed offices, and misaligned interests often prevent a valuable customer insight from traveling through the company. Investments in research and data are only worthwhile if there is also an investment in the dissemination of information. Time-intensive communications like information-dense emails, white papers, wiki posts, and decks, often go unread, but a concise customer newsletter can carry less, more immediately useful information.

Salespeople see they can snag quotes for sales decks, marketers see they can capture voice-of-customer terminology for emails, and engineers see they can getter a better grasp on the effects of what they are building. In the process, each team develops a taste for customer insights and begin to ask or search for more on their own.

Bringing a customer-centric approach to every organization

While it often falls upon product teams to kickstart customer-centricity, they cannot maintain it alone. Companies can encourage more teams to participate in this effort by making data accessible to every team – even non-technical ones. If the company invests in a system that’s intuitive enough for all to use, the analytics or product teams are no longer the bottleneck for insights.

Beyond analytics, each team can develop specific habits that contribute to building a company that is more responsive to user needs.

Product teams

Just because a product team performs research does not mean it is developing insights. Research, performed improperly, can actually be harmful, such as when researchers contaminate user feedback by asking leading questions.

It’s not uncommon for product teams to love their product but, if they’re too vocal about it, “they may cause a user to say they love it too, just to please the product manager,” says Harvard business professor Julia Austin. False positives can lead product teams confidently down the wrong path.

To overcome this, it takes experience. “You can’t just put someone in the user research role and expect them to do it,” said Decker. “It takes someone knowledgeable about research methodologies to actually extract insight.”

Sales teams

Sales teams can get closer to customers by sitting in on more customer service calls or talking to the customer marketing team. Leadership can also appoint a sales enablement liaison to interface with other teams to collect and distribute useful quotes and statistics.

Customer insights help salespeople close deals. For sales teams that talk too much about features, customer exposure can be the ultimate antidote.

Customer service teams

Many customer service teams already know that they’re sitting on a goldmine for customer insights, but too few operationalize it or share it with other teams.

At the marketing software company Hubspot, one customer success manager learned that the product, sales, and marketing teams had tremendous influence over whether her team retained customers. By condensing customer complaints into insights and sharing them with other teams, she was able to boost her own team’s metrics.

Beyond sharing, customer service teams can get more involved in product, sales, and marketing meetings. A deeper knowledge of why the product is built the way it is can help answer customer questions. And a better knowledge of how it’s sold and marketed can help them empathize with customers who are upset by the sometimes rocky handoff.

Marketing teams

Marketers can invest more headcount into customer marketing, shadow the product team during user interviews, balance their customer research with data, and create user advisory, community, and advocate groups.

Marketing customer research should be a never-ending conversation. “Some people still think that insight is just another word for market research. It’s not,” said Denyse Drummond-Dunn, founder of the marketing consultancy C3Centricity. “Insights are rarely – if ever – developed from a single project.”

Engineering teams

Engineers who participate in user research and testing along with design, product, and marketing teams can better empathize with users and often build better solutions.

In some organizations, engineers may use their own product and be their own source of customer insights. At the virtual server software firm VMWare, engineers dreamt up a technology that is now critical to operations – vMotion – and the product team monetized it and put it into production.

Honing a focus on customers doesn’t happen overnight. Just as hiring a UX designer does not instantly make a company a design-led organization, an increased investment in UX research, customer surveys, and analytics can take time to pay-off.

Teams have to realize the value of user insights on a personal level. They must feel how it helps them solve problems, earn recognition, and advance in their careers. Once they do, customer-centricity takes on a life of its own.

To paraphrase Adam Smith, it is not from the benevolence of the manager, the marketer, or the salesperson that they listen to their customers, but from their regard to their own self-interest. Once the entire company begins to focus on user needs out of prudence, the challenges the company faces become less daunting.

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