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When customers want a product roadmap, do this instead

Product roadmaps suck.Roadmap

There, I said it. <exhales>

OK, let’s explain that. Roadmaps that are real, living documents representing what you will deliver…are awesome. But that may not be the case for you; it wasn’t for me. Instead, a product roadmap was at its core a sales document for a prospect call. A lot of effort, with various people weighing in on what should show up there. Ginning up dates over the next 24-36 months for when features will be delivered. A visually lickable timeline.

And it’s defunct as soon as it’s published. Poor roadmap, it never had a chance. If anyone actually remembers what was in the roadmap months later, you’re left explaining that, “um…yeah…things changed”.

To be fair, this happens more in industries where the level of uncertainty is high. You’re assembling the future, learning as you go along and making adjustments. Industries with stability can put a roadmap out there and stick to it. But if your industry has a lot of fluctuation in its future, roadmaps are an  exercise in futility.

Given this, what’s the point of creating them? For me, a better way to handle the inevitable roadmap requests was needed. Internally for client-facing peers; and with sales prospects and current clients. I took the view that the customer’s roadmap request was essentially about these three questions:

  1. Where will your development resources be focused over the 12-36 months?
  2. Does your view of what’s needed for successful outcomes matches mine?
  3. What are the core values of your platform philosophy?

In other words, knowing that X feature would be rolled out in 12 months wasn’t really what influenced the customer. It wasn’t as if they said, “Oh, that feature will be there in a year? I’ll pay $X for your platform today and begin to use it once that feature is ready.”

I wanted to find a better way. Answer the questions the customer has while avoiding unrealistic commitments and schedules.  So I developed a different approach to requests for a roadmap. It focuses on two core elements:

  • Product themes
  • How we’ll work with the client

Themes are the future the customer is buying. Work with the client describes the ongoing interactions around product design. Both are part of the decision calculus of the customer. Should I go forward with this company or not?

Product themes

Product themes are the core areas that are the means to the outcomes customers seek. When I worked at Spigit, I developed five core themes (conceptualized in below graphic):

Themes

Themes are the broad areas in which the platform needs to excel. They are selected because they are key to satisfying high-level jobs-to-be-done. They will vary by product. An accounting app might have themes around ‘accuracy’, ‘sync with GAAP’ and ‘integration with other apps’. A supplier of chemicals might need to concern itself with ‘potency of compounds’ and ‘safety’.

Themes are where an analytical approach meets a flair for artistry. Internally, they are great for organizing future release efforts. I would actually grade the platform on the themes, using the A to F scale, to help prioritize future effort.

For customers, themes provide a peek into what makes your platform special. You’re communicating a promise for what future releases will address. Customers develop a sense of the platform today, and the platform of the future.

Past + possible features = proof

For the themes, plan on doing more than stating them. Bring them to life by talking features. Yes, this sounds like the roadmap rat-hole. But it’s a different way to do that:

Theme + features

Past features are proof that you are focused on the themes, and they illustrate how you have approached enhancing the themes for clients thus far. They connect the experience of your product today to the themes.

Possible features are a source of excitement, and proof that you’re focused on the themes in future development. They’re not supposed to be a committed list of features over the next 3 years. Rather, they provide a sense for how you’re approaching fulfillment of customers’ jobs-to-be-done. This gives you the chance to talk about some of the ideas floating around in your organization while avoiding the farce of putting dates on when (and if) they’ll be delivered. When asked, I put it to them straight: “These are several ideas we currently have for this theme. What are your thoughts on them?”

Which leads nicely into the other major point to cover…

How we’ll work with the client

In the B2B market, customers want to have direct input into the product design process. Not so much in the consumer market, where we simply stop buying something if it doesn’t satisfy us. But the dollars and reputation that can be on the line in the corporate market translate into greater interest in where the product is going.

To address this desire, communicate how you will work with your customer in the product design process. I would talk about three areas:

Customer insight in product design

Jobs-to-be-done: Ongoing learning about the different things customers seek to accomplish, what they rank as most important and their level of satisfaction with achieving those goals. This is a deeper dive into motivations, how outcomes will be measured and current pain points.

Ideas: As the most active users of your product (often more than you), customers will see opportunities for improvement.  Maintain a site for ongoing suggestions as they occur, and run targeted ideation campaigns for specific areas of development.

Design feedback: Prior to committing to production of a product, run several designs by them. The designs will emphasize different functions and looks, and customers give an early read on how they will be received.

The combination of themes and the ways you’ll work with customers answers the key questions they have. It actually goes way beyond the normal roadmap, providing philosophical underpinnings for your product.  And for the product manager, it’s something you can discuss with integrity and enjoyment.

I’m @bhc3 on Twitter.

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What’s your view on customers’ value to innovation?

More and more, customer-centricity is becoming a thing. As in, an increasingly important philosophy to companies in managing day-to-day and even longer term planning. In comes in different forms: design thinking, social CRM, service-dominant logic, value co-creation.

But it’s not pervasive at this point. Companies still are spotty on how much they integrate customers into their processes. This is a revolution that will take some time to unfold.

In terms of innovation and product or service development, there is a spectrum of where organizations are today:

Quick descriptions of each point on the spectrum…

Customers have thoughts?: For these firms, customers are transactions. How will I know if I’m attuned to the customer? I look at my daily sales receipts. If they’re up, I’m attuned. If they’re down, I’m not!

Customers don’t know what they want: What was it Steve Jobs said again? Ah, yes: “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” Unlike the previous point on the spectrum, here, companies have considered that their customers have thoughts. They just don’t think there’s much point in paying attention to them. In a more charitable vein, Roberto Verganti cites companies that “make proposals to people”. While there’s no direct customer engagement, these companies build product intuition through trends changing other sectors. Unfortunately, many companies with the “customers don’t know” aren’t actually doing that either. It’s more someone’s whim defining the offering.

We respond to questions and issues: In this part of the spectrum, companies may proudly say they listen to their customers. Not too deeply though. It’s more a surface-level valuation of customer input. It doesn’t fundamentally change the company culture, or really draw customer insights more deeply into the organizational workings. The hip companies have extended this work out into social media. They monitor tweets, Facebook posts, Pinterest pins, etc. for complaints, questions and sentiment analysis.

We have a Customer Advisory Council: Take some of your best customers, and appoint them to a special panel that meets periodically during the year. Good forum for airing bigger picture issues. In this case, companies asttempt to more directly solicit customer input into their thinking. These sessions are good, because otherwise the only way customer feedback gets into an organization is during the sales process and then one-on-one with an account/customer rep. Insight gets trapped in a CRM account somewhere. While progressing on being attuned to customer insight, CACs are still siloed affairs. Many in the company have no idea what comes out of them. And they are removed from the day-to-day work that truly defines an organization.

We focus group new innovations we’ve already developed: As opposed to developing something and putting it out there, these companies work with focus groups to understand what is liked or disliked about an offering they have developed. This can be quite valuable done right, and becomes a direct conduit for customer insight into the company. The biggest problem here is that it’s after-the-fact: the product or service has already been designed. Now, in the lean startup methodology, this approach of develop and test is a core principle. In corporate land, focus groups may be less about test-and-learn, and more about affirming one’s pre-held views.

We solicit customer jobs-to-be-done: As part of their planning and design process, companies solicit customers’ jobs-to-be-done. They want to get a bead on customers are trying to accomplish with their products and services. This is no small feat. I’ve done this work myself, and it does take a willingness to open one’s mind beyond your own personal beliefs. But getting and using jobs-to-be-done in product and service design is a basis for better, more valued offerings to the market. Key here is not just engaging customers on their jobs, but actually incorporating that into design.

We gather customer ideas: Customers are using your offerings, and can see opportunities where new features and services would help them. While certainly product, R&D and marketing will come up with ideas on their own, what about the people who actually use your products? This is a form of open innovation. The amount of ingenuity outside your company walls dwarfs what you have internally. Key here is to solicit around focused areas for development, which makes using the ideas more feasible inside companies. Wide open idea sites can be harder for companies to process, as they don’t fit an existing initiative. Defined projects have a receptive audience and a commitment to progress forward.

We co-design with customers: The most advanced form of customer-centricity. Customers have a seat at the table in the actual development of products and services. This is, frankly, pretty radical. Their input guides the development, their objections can remove a pet feature favored by an executive. This is hard to pull off, as it is counter to the reason you have employees in the first place (“experts on the offering”). It requires a mentality change from being the primary source of thought to a coordinator and curator. Key here is deciding which customers to involve at what point in the process.

My guess is that most companies are still toward the left side of the spectrum, but as I say, it is a changing business world.

I’m @bhc3 on Twitter.

Jobs-to-be-done’s place in a customer-centric organization

On Twitter, I asked this question:

I asked it, as I had a conversation in recent days with a fellow from a large corporate. Customer-centricity was recently adopted as an internal mantra, but the manifestation of that was…wait for it…sentiment analysis.

It’s a start, right? But is it really a difference-maker?

I’ve written recently about jobs-to-be-done. As in, what customers hire your product to do. Those jobs have a tendency to (i) be hidden from you; and (ii) change over time. Knowing, and acting on, jobs-to-be-done (JTBD acronymized) is probably one of the most customer-centric things a company can do. You’re getting deep into what someone is buying your product for.

While I don’t work for a large corporate, I am integrating jobs-to-be-done in some work on next generation gamification elements for the Spigit platform. Why? Because there are many different types of game mechanics that can be applied to a platform. But why would you add any of them? To better deliver on what your customers hire you to do. To accomplish this, I’m using the Listhings site – online post-it notes – to collect and socialize these. I follow my own format for JTBD: context, job, success metric. An actual (blurred-out) example is below:

You know what? Customers love talking about their jobs-to-be-done. Seriously.  I usually schedule an inital hour to talk about them, and every single company has wanted to continue to the conversation for another hour. The conversations are not just good customer relations, which they are. They are leading to areas where the Spigit platform can apply game mechanics to improve their outcomes.

But apparently, this approach is sort of radical. As only 7% of firms are deemed to be customer-centric.

Where would JTBD fit?

Which got me thinking. What exactly are companies doing today, at least in the product and service development arena? Where would customer jobs-to-be-done fit with existing approaches? The graphic below is my take on what’s happening out there:

The center blue area represents the work of ideating, designing and producing products and services. The top grey boxes floating around up there? Those are the current factors influencing the product/service development process.

Market Analysis: Classic input for product development here. What are the trends? What are competitors doing? What’s going on in adjacent markets? You’re got to do this. It’s a source of ideas, and evidence of what customers are gravitating toward.

Executive Fiat: Does this really happen??? Heh, just joking of course. This will be a reality forever, and it’s actually appropriate in mild doses.  The thing to watch is the bull-in-the-china-shop approach, where that product is gonna get done, I’m not listening to anyone! Perhaps too many executives subscribe to the Steve Jobs-attributed notion that customers don’t know what they want (“So I’m going to give it to them!”).

Usage Vectors: Once you have product out there, you learn what people are using, what they value in the existing product features. And you continue to develop along those vectors. It’d be irresponsible to do otherwise. Just watch getting stuck on those vectors and missing the market shifts.

Customer Service Tickets: As people use your product, they’re going to file requests and report issues. These items are some clues to what people are trying to get done. They suffer from being narrow, focused on a specific interaction point and grounded in what they know of the current product. But you can divine some of what people want to get done from these.

Customer Surveys: Surveys get you closer to customers. Polling people’s preferences for difference attributes and behaviors. Good input as you consider a product or venture. Problem with surveys is that the questions are set ahead of time. Whoever puts them together has to decide what the key factors are. But that leaves a huge hole in understanding what customers themselves value.

Focus Groups: A favorite activity of large companies is to get some random people in a room for a couple hours and ask them about some concept being tested. In that these sessions have actual people talking, they are nominally useful. But common critiques of these are that

  • Participants tell researchers what they want to hear
  • The format is unnatural – forced face-to-face interactions with strangers for two hours in a closed room
  • Alpha personalities sway things
  • What’s discussed are already-decided concepts, not insight on what customers are looking to get done

As was stated in this 2003 Slate article, “The primary function of focus groups is often to validate the sellers’ own beliefs about their product.”

Jobs-to-be-done fills a gap

In all of the popular bases for developing products and services, one can see a gap. Most are a triangulation to understanding what customers want. Now some are quite useful in a customer-centric sense: usage vectors, customer service tickets, surveys. But they’re also piecemeal.

They represent the hope that you’ve got a bead on customer needs and wants.

Why the reluctance to actually talk directly with customers? Seems plain talk in a (not overly) structured way will give you a better sense of where opportunities lie. Aside from the product/service tools listed above, there are the social media engagement practices of today (react to tweets, have a Facebook page, sentiment analysis). All have their place, but they fall short.

Want to be customer-centric? Try talking to your customers.

I’m @bhc3 on Twitter.

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