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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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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.

LeadLander – Great Traffic Referral Tracking Service

Leadlander logo

Here’s a quick post about a service we use at Spigit, and that I’ve been digging a lot: LeadLander. LeadLander tracks hits to your website. And I love the data.

I’m not exactly a website SEO expert…OK, I’m not one at all. I see some pretty nice stats for this WordPress.com blog. That’s about the extent of my awareness.

So seeing what data is available is a revelation to me. And as I journey further into my marketing role, I’m coming to appreciate these stats tremendously.

Here’s what LeadLander gives you:

  • Name of companies that visit your site
  • How they got there
  • What pages they clicked
  • Most frequent search terms
  • Country counts for visitors
  • IP geolocation
  • Contacts

It’s that first item up there, the name of the company where the traffic came from, that is most addicting. You can see which companies are interested in what you offer, and how they found out about you.

As I said, I’m relatively new to this website analytics world. But LeadLander has proven to be highly valuable to us in terms of B2B marketing.  For a discussion about LeadLander, and other providers, check out this LinkedIn thread.