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November 23, 2020

Is Your Product Team Really Customer-Centric?

User Research

“Customer-centric” has become a favorite buzzword for companies of all shapes and sizes. The idea began in the world of Customer Success but rapidly expanded across organizations, and with good reason--when businesses put customers first and truly solve their problems, it takes much less effort to retain happy customers and attract new ones.

Customer-centricity is more than just an empty claim. Most product leaders genuinely want to solve customer problems, and know that a customer-centric approach is the surest way to do it. However, truly becoming customer-centric is easier said than done. Resource-constrained teams faced with ambitious goals are often forced to take the fastest route to short-term impact, which doesn’t always square with a customer-led approach.

While focusing on quick wins can be effective, skipping a more precise calibration of customer needs limits the sustainability of growth over the long term. Unfortunately, many product teams fall into cycles of short-term focus that can be hard to break out of, and that prevent even the most customer-focused Product Managers from making customer-driven decisions.

Wondering whether this applies to you?

Ask yourself these questions:

  • When was the last time you developed your roadmap based on findings from user research, customer feedback, or direct customer conversations?
  • Do you regularly conduct user research to confirm whether products and features you plan to build solve real customer problems? If yes, do you regularly do it *before* you start building, in addition to during development?
  • Have you ever moved ahead with your original plan even after learning of a substantial red flag in user research, because of external (not customer-related) demands? How did that affect adoption of your product? Do you know?
  • When building new products or features, are any of your KPIs customer-driven (i.e., measures of whether the product or feature is actually solving the problem it was intended to solve--from the customers’ point of view)?
  • Do you track any customer metrics other than NPS?

How product teams can become more customer-centric

Making the shift to become more customer-centric can be challenging, but it’s not an all-or-nothing proposition. You may not be able to wake up tomorrow and make immediate, fundamental changes to the ways you and your teamwork, but you can make small changes that build over time, slowly making room for the larger changes that generate major rewards for your business and your customers.

Here are some recommendations for big change, along with suggestions for starting small, that can make a difference today.

Do more user research. It doesn't have to slow you down.

Conducting user research throughout the product development process is critical to making sure the time and effort you and your team spend is worthwhile. User research prevents outcomes like building a brand new product that solves a problem no one has, or launching a feature that's so hard to use customers give up before seeing its value. But product teams often avoid doing more than a minimal amount of user research because of the perception that it will slow them down.

The good news is it’s becoming easier than ever to integrate the customer perspective into product development with tools that allow you to get rapid insights through surveys, usability testing, and other methods. With tools like Sprig, product teams can launch surveys in a matter of minutes, target only the most relevant users at the exact right moment, and collect actionable insights within hours. Integrating tools like this into your team's process enables PMs to have direct and continuous access to customer feedback with a few clicks--before, during, and after products are launched.

  • Start small: A little research is better than none. If you don’t have a team or tools in place to learn from your customers already, email a customer and set up a time to talk to them about how they use the feature you’re working on right now. Don’t try to educate them about your product; use the time to understand their experience and their point of view. It will be illuminating.

Track the customer experience across the journey.

Doing user research on a project-by-project basis is great, but it only gives you insight into what you’re already working on and limits your overall understanding of the customer experience with your product. Consider adding experience measurement to your process, by launching in-product surveys to track customer metrics at key moments in the journey.

This data can be used in a number of ways to make you smarter and make your job easier. First, it will help identify pain points or blockers you may not have been aware of that are preventing customers from reaching their goals. Use it to find and fix bugs or identify new, customer-led opportunities for next quarter's roadmap.

Second, it will reduce the time you need to spend on ad hoc user research and enable you to use that time more strategically. You'll have up-to-date insights from real customers at your fingertips, so when starting a new initiative, you won't be starting from scratch when it comes to understanding customer needs. Instead, you'll have a rich base of knowledge to work with.

  • Start small: If you’re already tracking NPS or another customer metric, spend 30 minutes reading through open-ended feedback and look for underlying emotions, pain points, and opportunities. If you don’t have survey data, try looking through customer support queues or online forums.

Go beyond Net Promoter Score.

Net Promoter Score (NPS) has its benefits; but relying on NPS alone to understand the customer experience--as many companies do--can be counter-productive, often leaving product teams grasping at straws. NPS is an extremely broad metric, and ratings are often influenced by factors outside the customer experience. Consider metrics more linked to the experience itself, such as whether customers are satisfied with the features available, whether your product meets their needs, how easy to use your product is, or how much value users are deriving from it. The metrics that will be most relevant for your business will be based on your specific product and users.

  • Start small: Spin up a quick customer survey asking users to rate their experience with the part of your product you’re currently working on and explain their responses. Use their feedback as an input into your process--find at least 2 changes you can make to your current plan to better meet customer needs.

Use customer metrics as KPIs, alongside other business metrics.

It’s not enough to simply measure customer experience metrics, although that is certainly a major step forward. To truly be customer-centric, product leaders must elevate those metrics to the same level as more traditional metrics like conversion. A product release is not successful if it increases conversion without an equivalent increase in relevant customer experience metrics. This outcome signals short-term gains at the expense of long-term impact, and should be a red flag to look closer at what may not be working yet.

What customer metrics should you use as KPIs? Broad metrics like NPS won't work here. Choose questions that relate to customers' experience with the specific product or feature you'll be measuring the success of. For example, if you're launching new image editing features, consider asking users how well your products' image editing tools meet their needs. And make sure to follow up with an open-ended question to understand why they rated it how they did. Ideally, you would track this metric consistently before, during, and after the launch of your new features; but at a minimum, you should run a quick survey once before launch and once after launch.

  • Start small: Remember that survey we mentioned in the last section? Run the same survey after your launch and compare the results. Hopefully, your ratings improved, but regardless of whether they did or did not, look through the responses to understand what tweaks you can make to continue improving, or uncover ideas for the next project.

What can you do today to put your users at the forefront?

Want some examples of customer-centricity in action? Check out Sprig's case studies.

About the author

Allison Dickin

Survey fanatic and customer experience advocate. Former Research Director at Yale School of Management and Senior Research Manager at Etsy. Bucknell and University of Chicago alum.

Allison Dickin Headshot

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