5 ways product managers can better listen to customers

How product managers can source, process and incorporate user feedback 

Your customers are your most important collaborators. Their ideas represent untapped market opportunities. But getting customers to share the right information is no easy task, and turning ideas into action poses significant challenges. Product managers who successfully master this advanced level of collaboration will have a significant impact on your company’s bottom line – and will enjoy near-guaranteed job security as a result.

I spoke with several product managers to learn how they extract the most value from user feedback. Here are their best tips:

Meet former customers

It is always disappointing to see a customer leave you behind, but their reasons can help you improve your product and influence your company’s long-term direction.

“In selecting customers with whom to meet, I often prefer ex-customers that have gone on to try competitors’ products. They are commonly more direct and honest, as well as aware about their specific decision criteria in a way that brand-loyal customers simply are not,” says Brian Mitchell, product manager at Schneider Electric. In due time, you will be able to develop a product that will win back lost customers and capture new interest from prospective buyers.

Review your analytics

Sometimes numbers are more honest than words.

“It’s not what they say—it’s what they do!” cautions Simply Bags owner Bob Shirilla. “Our most valued source of customer feedback is our website’s analytics.”

To use that information to build a better business, he ranks his “entire inventory by the amount of time customers stay on product pages and the bounce rate” and takes “the poor performing products and moves them to the clearance page.”

Lead a video contest

James Sajeva, product manager for Korg USA, takes an indirect yet innovative approach to sourcing authentic user feedback. Sajeva hosts video contests which “result in some very creative uses of our products, and these have sparked ideas for new marketing of said products.” Using free products and services as bounty, businesses can encourage users to create videos about unique ways customers use (or would want to use) a product.

Filter for the right information

In a blog post, Intercom’s co-founder and chief strategy officer Des Traynor outlines five common mistakes when managing customer feedback. Those include:

  1. Engaging all types of users. Each client has different needs and motivations; batching their feedback rarely makes sense and can confuse final takeaways.
  2. Haphazardly sourcing feedback. Most businesses wait until the very last minute to conduct a survey or study. Instead, they should “periodically check in with users.”
  3. Forgetting the impact of freemium on user feedback. Paying customers will ask for better, improved features. Free users will request more free features.
  4. Listening to the vocal minority. Verify that the issues your users bring up impact a large-enough portion of your userbase. Avoid unnecessarily reallocating limited resources towards projects that may only help a handful of customers.
  5. Assuming users know best. The features they request may be useful but limited in scope. You will need to identify the motivation behind a particular request and conjure the perfect solution that will fulfill many more users’ needs.

Not all feedback is created equal—and that’s OK. It is a product manager’s responsibility to make sure she is carefully categorizing and weighing the different ideas customers share.

Design to a higher order

Mitchell’s team at Schneider Electric synthesizes user feedback by taking groupings of ideas to create “a new single sentence that captures the higher level customer challenge or concern. This list of key statements can be used as a yardstick against which any new engineering design can be measured.”

Once you are done gathering and processing feedback, it is time to develop new products or improve on existing offerings. Mitchell adds, “A good idea is one that clearly addresses one or more of the key statements. Any engineer on my team knows the key statements for a development I am leading, and (s)he knows that I will challenge any idea that doesn’t directly address them or, worse, further complicates them.”

Post by Danny Wong

Danny Wong is an entrepreneur, marketer, and writer. He is the co-founder of Blank Label (an award winning menswear company focusing on luxury made-to-measure garments) and does marketing at Grapevine (a platform that drives eCommerce, helping retailers partner with YouTube celebrities). Tweet him @dannywong1190