Why 2021 Will Be the Most Customer-Centric Year for Product Teams Yet

January 3, 2021

This time last year, Productboard deemed it the Golden Age of Product Management. Thanks to factors like digital transformation, fierce competition, and rising customer expectations, product management stands out as a fast-growing and high-impact field.

Despite 2020’s many curveballs, that declaration held true. Just recently, Forbes published an article explaining how the product economy and interconnectivity put product managers at the center of the modern organization. And (at least if you ask me), it’s still a pretty awesome time to work in product.

As we enter 2021, I think this trend will hold steady. But I want to add a little nuance: In 2021, we’ll be talking about the golden age of customer-centric product management. I predict factors like heated markets and shifting customer attitudes will prompt PMs to double down on understanding their customers’ needs and delivering simple, customer-centric products.

Here’s why:

Post-pandemic, the stakes to nail customer experience and value will be higher

In 2020, we turned the corner on a competitive product economy that changes at light-speed. In 2021, the chips will begin to fall.

While the pandemic slowed spending and development for a number of industries, cloud-based software was not one of them. “The pandemic validated cloud’s value proposition,” reads a report from Gartner. “The increased use of public cloud services has reinforced cloud adoption to be the ‘new normal,’ now more than ever.” That same report predicts cloud spending will grow by 18.4% in 2021.

There’s both good news and bad news associated with the booming digital market. First, it points to opportunity: Businesses everywhere are eager to spend on solutions that enable remote workflows, automate time-consuming tasks, and build resiliency.

The bad (or at least urgent) news? Opportunity means competition. During the pandemic, when sales briefly slowed, companies doubled down to ensure their products offered the best product and user experience for the new normal.

In order to stay resilient (and bounce back) from the crisis, product developers asked questions like:

  • What key processes can we digitize and automate to reduce friction for customers (as well as internal teams) who have shifted to remote work?
  • How can we offer more digital touchpoints and microservices for our customers to help them get the most value out of our products during the pandemic?
  • How can we build integrations with products in our customers’ digital stack to become an integral part of their cloud workspaces?
  • How can we quickly build and deliver a Minimum Viable Product (or even better, a Minimum Lovable Product) to meet fluctuating needs and digital landscapes post-pandemic?

As the world restabilizes in 2021 with a more competitive product marketplace than ever before, rock-solid customer experiences and clear, customer-centric value propositions will separate the products that stand out in the hot market vs. those that drown in it.

Customers will want less marketing and more solutions

As a general rule, buyers don’t love marketing. But in 2021, they’ll be more determined than ever to cut through the marketing noise and find products that provide simple solutions to their essential problems.

Why? According to Drift’s 2020 State of Conversational Marketing report, B2B buyers are frustrated with an excess of marketing noise that doesn’t answer essential questions about the product. Of the 538 surveyed B2B professionals, 36% felt like they couldn’t get answers to their simple, straightforward questions, and 53% of respondents reported feeling frustrated by an excess of unhelpful marketing emails.

One of the biggest differences between B2B and B2C marketing is how informed buyers are. B2C customers are more susceptible to emotional and fun marketing campaigns, whereas B2B buyers want to understand exactly how a product will meet their needs and deliver ROI.

Plus, as markets continue to become more complex and competitive, B2B buyers will only become more discerning. Clever marketing won’t be able to convince skeptical buying committees to purchase something that doesn’t provide ROI.

What does this mean for product teams? It means they are more on the hook than ever to create products that actually do meet their audiences’ needs. Product developers cannot design in a vacuum and rely on marketing departments to figure out why and how a buyer should use their product.

Instead, they must focus their efforts on developing products and features that align with user needs. Once the product is in alignment with user needs, marketing can step in to reveal the essential value proposition of the product using clear explanations, data, customer stories, etc. But without a customer-centric product at its foundation, marketing is just extra noise.

The more complex and noisy the market becomes, the more simple, customer-centric solutions — not marketing — stand out.  

Companies investing in user research will continue to pull ahead

The more markets, behaviors, and technologies fluctuate, the more user research will stand out as a differentiator. Why? Because it helps PMs focus on what’s important: the people.

Already, actively collecting customer data stands out as a difference-maker between high-growth companies and nongrowth companies. According to research from Gartner, 80% of product and CX teams at growth companies regularly collect and analyze customer data, while only 58% of teams at nongrowth companies do so.

They credit growth to something they call “the outside-in approach — the idea that customer value creation, customer orientation and CX will drive long-term business success.” It means actually understanding customer need (through data and analysis, not just gut feelings) before spending time trying to create a solution.

Kim Goodwin, a great product consultant (and Twitter follow), summed up the ethos behind user research with this tweet:

I predict this mentality will only gather steam as we enter 2021.

In a post-pandemic world full of noisy markets and digital transformation, customer needs will feel like a moving target. User research is how PMs will be able to track those needs and capitalize on new, innovate ways to meet them.

Don’t just take it from me, though. Jesús R, a senior UX research manager at ATB Financial, wrote about a similar prediction earlier this year.“There will be unparalleled opportunities to serve customers through new mediums and provide unique experiences that bring value to their life,” he wrote, “but we must first understand their world.”

2021 will also provide new ways for product teams to connect with customers

2021 will require product teams to adopt customer-centric practices that are quick and agile enough to keep up with the pace of change. Fortunately, 2021 will also bring more tools to help them do so.

If reading about all the new expectations to get inside your customers’ heads sparks stress, I understand. Before starting UserLeap, I worked as a founding PM at five acquired startups and consistently struggled to find manageable, time-efficient processes to nail down my customers’ needs.

The good news? There has never been an easier time to be a customer-centric product person.

As the world goes digital and the product market becomes more complex, there are more tools to help PMs get inside their customers’ heads than ever before — tools like continuous research, which integrates contextual micro-surveys into your product experience to constantly collect user research data, or AI-powered text analysis, which combs through survey responses to provide qualitative, actionable takeaways at scale.

That’s the mission statement of our mission here at UserLeap: create a low-effort, high-impact platform to help product teams of any size surface actionable, timely user insights. Check it out (for free!) if you’d like.

Also, if you want to take stock of your team’s customer-centricity, check out Is Your Product Team Really Customer-Centric? It offers some great questions to help you assess whether you’re 2021-ready, as well as some strategies to help you enter the new year with a truly customer-centric mindset.

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