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Decision flow for customer feature requests

If you  manage a product or service in the business-to-business (B2B) market, customer requests for features will be a regular part of your work. Requests come in through the sales team, service reps, and senior management, as well as directly from customers themselves. It’s a disruptive insertion of new items for your agenda. That disruption isn’t necessarily bad, but it does distract you from other planning and execution you’re working on.

Reflecting on my own experiences here, I realized that each request needs to go through a series of decisions. These decisions make sure you know why you would agree to or decline the request, and are aware of the bigger picture effects of your decision. They make up the customer request decision flow:

B2B customer request decision flow

The flow is a series of decisions, in priority order. My perspective is product management, but they apply to other areas as well (service, contracting processes, etc.).

Firm request from a priority customer?

This decision point is made up of two criteria: priority customer and firm request.

Priority customer

The first decision point may be somewhat offputting, especially if you operate in the small business or consumer markets. It matters who makes the request. In the enterprise market, just a few customers will be a significant share of your revenue. These customers’ revenue help you meet the payroll. They help keep the lights on. If you’re public, they help keep the stock price up.

In addition to high revenue, some customers are also valuable for non-monetary reasons. Lighthouse customers are important for establishing credibility with other companies.

Whether based on revenue or marketing value, some companies will be priority customers. They are a reality in every B2B company. Keeping them happy is part of the job.

Firm request

Sometimes a request is urgent, and vitally important to the customer. Other times, it’s merely a suggestion, a minor nit or a fleeting idea. It’s important to understand the difference.

Firm requests often come freighted with emotional terms, or subtle threats. “We really need this to make sure our sponsors continue to support you.” When they’re firm, pay attention, immediately.

Not all requests are firm. The customer may couch the request with wiggle room. Or directly say “it’s not a big deal”. Often, they have bigger things they want to tackle (on the product, on processes, on strategy) and look at their request as a suggestion-in-passing.  They will move on to the bigger items and not focus on the request.

The ability to recognize the difference gets better with experience.

Multiple similar requests?

If the request is not a firm one from a priority customer, the next decision point is: are multiple customers are asking for the same feature? What the request lacks in priority, it may make up in commonality.  If customers are making multiple requests for a similar feature, you’ve got a pain point on your hands that needs to be addressed.

A key issue is this: how do you know multiple customers have the same request? A common way is to utilize software which allows customers to post ideas, suggestions and requests. There are idea management providers that are good for this. Or you can user customer feedback  sites. These asynchronous, always-on, open-to-all sites are well-suited for capturing suggestions.

In addition, you may need to check other areas. Bad as it is,  your email often contains customer suggestions. Or you have a service ticket database you can check. Relevant knowledge will be in people’s heads, those who directly work with customers.

Once you know where to look, the process of determining commonality has two steps:

  1. Identify all similar requests that have been made by different customers
  2. Find all signals of support from customers

If you’re using an ideas or feedback site, finding similar requests is easier. Search on terms that relate to the request. Also, look at the ‘Likes’ and comments the suggestions have. I look at the number of companies represented in these signals of interest.

After gathering this information, you will have a sense of how wide the support is for the suggestion. If it’s sufficient, consider adding the request to your roadmap.

Meaningfully enhances outcomes?

Assume that the request is not a firm one from a priority customer, or one that has yet to be shared by multiple customers. There’s one final decision point: will the suggested feature meaningfully enhance customers’ outcomes?

Outcomes has a specific meaning here. It is the definition of when a job task has been satisfied. It should reflect the customer’s expectations. Remember, they only agree to use (and pay for) your product because you’re making them successful.

To apply this criteria effectively, you need working knowledge of what customers want to get done, and where they’re falling short. If you can see that the request will improve outcomes for a significant number of customers, it should be addressed.

Committed to maintaining feature?

For each of the previous three decision points, if the answer is ‘yes’, there is one more decision to make. Are you committed to maintaining the feature? While this may seem like a simple enough question, there are a number of considerations to it. Below are six factors to consider before answering ‘yes’.

Economics: What are the costs to build and maintain the feature? The expected upside of the feature should cover these. Upside is a holistic concept, including money for the new feature, new sales contracts and renewals because of the feature and increased customer satisfaction that translates into informal marketing for your company.

Release velocity: Every new feature added to a product increases the complexity of future releases. In software, a given configuration can have ongoing downstream impacts. Yammer’s V:P Engineering Kris Gale sees the additional complexity as a tax on product velocity. Your ability to release quality products quickly is impacted with each new feature. It’s worth it to add features, but think carefully about velocity impact.

User experience: The ability to use the product or service effectively is a core requirement for customers. If they find that it too complex, they will not fulfill their jobs-to-be-done. Joshua Porter nice summarizes the issue of feature creep: “No single feature addition is a big deal, but taken together change everything.” The value of the request must be greater than any negative effects on user experience.

Tip of the iceberg: sometimes, a request is a “jump” from the current product or service. And it’s only part of a broader offering needed to really address the need. You can look at a request and see how additional features will be needed over time to make it deliver value. And that may take the product in a direction you don’t want to go. Understand the longer term plan related to the request.

Mass market: You’re building a product or service for the mass market. It needs to address a large swath of customers’ needs. In that light, look at the current request. Is it the umpteenth time that this customer, or one of a handful of customers have requested something? Too many ‘outside-the-market’ requests can undermine your broader strategy. You win the battle for the lighthouse customer, but lose the war with the broader market.

Outcome prioritization: Smart product management is organized according to customers’ jobs-to-be-done and expected outcomes. Some outcomes may be currently underserved. Customers’ expectations are being met, and that needs to be addressed. The new request will delay the implementation of features to address these outstanding pain points. Determine if the new request outweighs the currently underserved outcomes.

Decide on the request

Decline the request

If the request cannot cleanly get through the six criteria of the “Committed to maintaining feature?” decision point, it is reasonable to decline the request. Indeed, you now have specific reasons for doing so. That alone is a big improvement versus what often happens: the request sits in the equivalent of a “dead letter” file. Or if there is a response, there’s only a vague, “we can’t do that right now.”

Address the request

If the request makes sense, then it’s full steam ahead. However, notice I’ve used the term “address the request”. This is different than “implement the request”. Maintain a philosophy that:

 Customers know their jobs-to-be-done better than you, but you will know potential solutions better than them.

Not to say the customer hasn’t provided a specific feature solution that is right. But avoid just passing through exactly what what was requested without giving thought to different ways the job-to-be-done can be addressed.

Customer requests will be a constant in the B2B product manager’s life. Knowing how you’re going to handle them is key to the success of the product and the business.

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.

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