Customer-Orientation: Moving from Novice to Master

A lot of organizations struggle with getting product managers to think about the customer. It’s easy to get fixated on internal constraints, such as cost, schedule, and capabilities, and lose sight of the customer’s job to be done.

We define being ‘customer-oriented’ in product across three dimensions. These dimensions work across many industries and types of product organizations, because they focus on developing the right mindsets in product talent.

Being Responsive to Customers

Customers who care the most about your product are the ones most excited to share feedback. Strong product managers see this as a gift, not a burden, and use these opportunities to build trust with the customer. I sometimes see being responsive defined as committing to a 24-hour response time; in world-class organizations, this should be seen as the bare minimum, not the standard.

Truly being responsive means PMs commit to critically evaluate all incoming requests. Note this is different from committing to address every request. A PMs vision for the product should continue to evolve as customers provide feedback, but it should not flap around directionless in the wind. Superstar PMs also start to anticipate customer issues before they arise and consolidate insights from independent data points to inform a larger discussion.

A few years ago, we received lots of critical feedback about a particular area of our product over the span of several months. The whole team was focused on tackling the issues one by one, until one PM saw the pattern and suggested an overhaul of the entire customer experience. Instantly, we realized that the way to be responsive to customers’ needs was to take a step back.

Customer-centric Decision-making

This may seem obvious, but truly excellent PMs have an intimate and expansive knowledge of customers’ jobs-to-be-done. They go beyond surveys and focus groups to develop a mental profile of the customer, what keeps them up at night, and even what gets them out of bed in the morning.

That mental profile of a customer informs every product decision — whether it’s design, feature prioritization, or bug fixing. Being able to accurately put themselves in the shoes of a customer is the most valuable thing a PM can do.

In a prior role, we used to make it a point to go to lunch with our customers every week just to hear them talk. The insights we gained from those conversations became invaluable in our ability to make product decisions on their behalf.

Customer Value Proposition

Great PMs know why the customer hired them in the first place. What is it about your company’s product that made them pick you over the competition? What makes you stand out? Knowing what that is and developing a deeper spike in that space is a surefire way to delight your customer while increasing your competitive advantage.

When I find myself trying to be all things to all customers, I know I have lost sight of our value proposition. It can be a way of avoiding the tough choices; re-centering myself on what differentiates us helps me prioritize in the way my customer needs.

How to Build These Skills

To help our PMs develop a spike in being customer-oriented, we developed a rubric that expresses these skills across five levels of competency: from novice to mastery. Each product manager is asked to self-assess their existing capabilities and then work with their team to find ways to move up the ladder.

Some examples of things we’ve done for PMs:

  • Schedule a ride-along with our sales teams who are out visiting customers
  • Send them to visit customers and spend time shadowing them
  • Work with the customer to invent a hypothetical product that solves a problem we didn’t know about
  • Run design sprints with customers in the room to intimately understand their point of view on an important problem

What other tools have you found helpful in becoming more customer-oriented as a product organization?

SVP Product, @Pearson. Dabble in educ investing. Passion for turning ed into outcomes. Former teacher, principal, consultant & coder. History buff.

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