My first real job was doing tech support for brain surgeons (literally). So you would think that when I became a Product Manager, I’d pay special attention to the golden customer feedback nuggets from the Support team. I’d try, but early on in my career – I’m so ashamed – I’d fall every so often into the same pattern as so many other PMs: I would hear the siren call of the Sales Team (“The deal is how big?! Of course!”). Or, I’d take what the CEO learned at a recent cocktail party as gospel and adjust product priorities (“Accessories for the Segway! Of course!”).
The truth of the matter is that, according to a survey of over 300 product managers conducted by UserVoice:
“Executives and sales teams dominate influence over strategic product decisions and product roadmap initiatives, even though product managers consistently ranked those two groups as the least valuable sources of product feedback.”
Let that sentence sink in.
Executives and Sales, the two internal groups whose feedback was rated the least valuable, have the most influence in shaping the product roadmap. I, as a Product Manager, trust your opinion the least, yet you, as a Sales Pro or Executive, are the one who has outsized influence on the roadmap. Oh, ok, that sounds like a good combination. (This would be one of the few completely appropriate places to insert a poop emoji.)
How can you ensure that feedback from all customer-facing roles within your organization gets the consideration it deserves? Consider this simple 3-step breakdown:
Step 1: Let the organization know what constitutes appropriate feedback.
Step 2: Inform them how to submit it, and how it will be used.
Step 3: Use the feedback how you said you would, and show the organization the results.
Is it possible to make collecting and acting on feedback from internal constituents as simple as a 3-step process? (Spoiler alert: Yes. Yes it is.)
Collecting Customer Feedback From Internal Constituents
In This Article:
- What is Internal Customer Feedback and Why Listen to Internal Stakeholders?
- The Facts
- Pros… with Benefits
- Cons… with Weaknesses
- Using Indirect Feedback Throughout the Product Development Lifecycle
- Best Practices / Pro-tips
PM Nightmare #1:
To: Product Manager
CC: CEO, SVP of Sales, VP of Sales, Director of Sales, SVP of PM, VP of PM, CMO, CFO, CXO
Subject: OFP needs TSNF
Hey Product Manager Person,
Our Fine Prospect wants This Shiny New Feature. Here’s a bottle of scotch. Could you include it in the next release? My bosses already gave it the green light and I told the prospect it will be available next week. Dude, you’re the best.
What is Internal Customer Feedback and Why Listen to Internal Stakeholders?
Internal customer feedback, or indirect feedback, is the information your organization’s customer-facing employees have about what is actually happening in the field. This type of feedback can come from anywhere within the company: Support, Sales, Services, Marketing, Executive Team and even from Development and Operations, to name a few. While it is often better to have a direct line to your customers and prospects, second best is getting actionable, trustworthy feedback from your colleagues on the front lines.
What kind of feedback will it get you?
Feedback from Sales may come in the form of lost sales or missed sales opportunities, while Support may focus on maintenance issues, bugs, requests from particularly irate customers, or oft-requested feature enhancements.
The challenges you face may include turning anecdotal feedback into facts and figuring out any trends in the pool of data points. You may be lucky enough to receive consolidated feedback from a particular department (e.g. Sales Win-Loss reports) or even deeper analysis of the data (e.g. Support received 10 times more complaints about a particular feature since the last upgrade).
The other challenge will be to separate the emotions involved with the feedback from understanding the root cause. This means that just because a customer gave a passionate plea for a new feature – and that plea was relayed by a Salesperson who needs to make his quota – doesn’t mean that the feature still needs to fit into your plans.
Collecting the Feedback: Easy. Support and Sales are already speaking with your customers, so they have the feedback. You can make it easy for them to share that info with you.
Analyzing the Feedback: Moderate to Difficult. Once you have the feedback, it may take some work to wrangle and massage the data in order for it to become meaningful.
Reach: Broad & Deep. Depending on the breadth and depth of the customer-facing parts of your organization, you may have access to a lot of on-the-ground customer intelligence.
Scalability: It Depends. Depending on your method for capturing the feedback, this may be a highly scalable process, or extremely tedious.
Cost: It Depends. Feedback can be captured very inexpensively (conversations, emails, post-it notes), yet doing so in a more systematic and transparent way may require investing in a dedicated system.
Pros… with Benefits
PM Nightmare #2:
To: Product Manager
Subject: Upset Customer(s)
We’ve gotten like 2 or 3 calls this week about this bug, it’s either pebcak or a crash, I don’t know which. In any case, we’ve gotten more than one service call about it so it’d be helpful to get it fixed in the next release since lots of customers are really upset. A few of them are, at least. You rock.
- Dejana Bajić wrote: “As a Product Manager, communicating with customers and users on a daily basis is a prerequisite for making smart product decisions.“
- Depending on the size of the customer-facing parts of your organization, you have access to a broad cross-section of your customer-base, and can hear what they are saying.
- It’s an effective tool to gather anecdotes, and use them to infer trends.
- The data you receive will be both qualitative and quantitative. You can support your facts with stories, and supplement your stories with facts. And both together can enable you to make more intelligent decisions about where to invest in your product.
Cons… with Weaknesses
PM Nightmare #3:
To: Product Manager
CC: VP of Product Management
Subject: Board Demo
The Board is meeting on Monday and they expect to see this new feature in the next release. You will demo it to them.
- What did you do with my feedback? Vincent Turner, CEO of Planwise, says: “There is the perennial challenge with the people who deal with customers day-to-day…and the people who own the month-to-month (quarterly or annual) direction of the product. Customer/user facing teams…are going to feel like ‘nothing is happening’.“ [source] He added that product managers already have a lot of data. “In the majority of cases something a customer suggests is already known to a product team…because a) another customer said it b) it was thought of internally…and [deferred] to meet a deadline.”
- Lost in translation. Even with the best of intentions, often what the customer is asking for is different than what actually gets relayed to the Product Manager. It can become a bad game of telephone.
- Keep me in the loop. “[C]ustomer teams feel out of the loop and that they have no say in product direction, product gets overloaded with feedback that’s not always in line with the product areas they’re focused on during a given time frame.” [source]
Using Indirect Feedback Throughout the Product Development Lifecycle
At what point(s) in the PDLC will this type of feedback be most useful?
Product Development Lifecycle:
- Phase 1: Conceive – imagine, specify, plan, innovate
- Phase 2: Design – describe, define, develop, test, analyze, validate
- Phase 3: Realize – manufacture, make, build, procure, produce, sell, deliver
- Phase 4: Service – Use, operate, maintain, support, sustain, phase-out, retire, recycle, dispose
Indirect feedback and feedback from colleagues is helpful throughout the Product Development Lifecycle.
- Phase 1: As you are investigating options for new product or features, mine the feedback from internal stakeholders looking for trends. Are there problems which keep coming up? Are there latent pain points or needs buried in that feedback which you might want to address? Whether the feedback is from Sales or Support, followup with the person who reported the feedback, and if relevant, speak directly with the customer(s) or prospect(s) who voiced the issue.
- Phase 2: As you design, develop and build out the product, solicit feedback from your internal stakeholders. They may be able to serve as a proxy for your users. Just be aware of the biases they might bring to the table — whether it is a salesperson who unconsciously focuses on their most recent customer conversations or a service professional who had to deal with an emotional client.
- Phase 3: Feedback from Sales throughout the sales process is invaluable. What are prospects reacting to when they hear the sales pitch or see the product firsthand? What objections do the have?
- Phase 4: Your Support and Services teams have firsthand experience with customers using the product. Are there simple improvements which will vastly increase customer satisfaction or make the product easier to use? Are there areas of the product where everyone stumbles? Have recent updates and modifications helped or hurt performance? Take that feedback and incorporate it into future updates.
Best Practices & Pro-tips
PM Nightmare #4:
To: Product Manager
i was about to start building thatNewFeature which every one of our customers has requested and i noticed that the code was really crufty so i refactored it since i was already in there. i still have more work to do, so won’t be able to get to the feature itself in this sprint. don’t worry, the refactor is on the backend so qa and customers won’t notice a thing.
Write It Down
The only way you can keep track of customer feedback is if it is written down. It’s really easy. Those in-passing conversations, lunchtime pow-wow sessions, feedback shared at happy hour? Unless it was written down, none of it happened. The scribbled post-it note, text message, two line email? Real, real, and really real.
The first and most critical rule is that feedback must be written down. So, with meek apologies to Fight Club, welcome to Feedback Club.
The first rule of Feedback Club is: you must only accept written feedback. The second rule of Feedback Club is: you must ONLY accept WRITTEN feedback! Third rule of Feedback Club: Someone makes feedback up, tells stories about potential sales, gives verbal feedback… that feedback won’t be accepted. Fourth rule: Feedback needs to find its way to a PM. PM doesn’t know about it, it doesn’t exist. Fifth rule: All feedback needs to get into The Feedback System, peeps. Sixth rule: No shirts, no shoes…strike that, you must wear clothes at all times. This ain’t Fight Club. Seventh rule: Valid feedback will be accepted at any point in the process. It might not get acted on, but it will be accepted. And the eighth and final rule: If this is your first time at Feedback Club, you have to give written feedback.
The Feedback System
It does not matter what you use to collect the written customer feedback, as long as everyone in the organization knows the acceptable methods for submitting it. It might be as simple as sending an email to a dedicated email address or filling out a short web form, or it might be more involved, like completing a Weekly Feedback Form (hello, TPS report!) or entering specific details into JIRA. (An aside: for the love of Pete, do not force people who want to give feedback to do extensive data entry. That’s a surefire way to stifle the urge to submit customer feedback. “Just one look at that feedback form and I’ve decided to abstain. I’m going to remain a feedback virgin.”)
Another consideration is just how transparent you want the feedback system to be. Will your colleagues submit feedback to a black box, and get informed (eventually) about the outcome? Will they be able to view, in real time, the status of their feedback and understand how it is used? Which approach you take will certainly depend on the environment in which you work, corporate culture, decision-making processes, etc. Just make sure to consider this factor when setting up a feedback system.
“Giving your customer-facing teams an easy-to-use system for sharing customer feedback with you as directly as possible is the next best thing. Take it a step further and ensure that your process gives you the feedback in a format that’s easy for you to organize, utilize, and maintain, and you’ve got yourself a feedback machine!“ [source]
What Should be Included in the Feedback
Written feedback is good, and you want to strike a balance between gathering enough context to make it helpful, while not suppressing the urge to actually write it down.
Some rules of thumb:
- Include as much data as is reasonable. At a minimum, state the feedback and the frequency with which it comes up. Add relevant data points, such as customer satisfaction scores, revenue generated or lost, customer segments raising the feedback, and any relevant trends.
- “Feedback like ‘customers are canceling because of X’ obviously has more weight than ‘customers would like to do X’,” says Dejana.
- Whom the feedback is coming from is also crucial, says Dejana. “Is this customer in the market group we’re targeting or is this feedback from a wordpress-powered home-renovation blogger?”
- Tiho stresses that trends are more important than one-offs. “Your customers don’t know each other so look out for patterns. If they’re giving consistent feedback it’s a great guiding sign to dig further around that topic.”
- Additional data points: “How long they’ve been a customer? How much they spend (i.e. monthly [recurring] revenue (MRR), annual contract value (ACV) etc.)? Account plan/level or account type? Happiness metrics such as Net Promoter Score (NPS)? Industry? Use case? P.S. Don’t forget to consider the volume, frequency and intent of feedback“
Get Feedback on the Feedback
Many organizations hold a “bimonthly feedback meeting where customer-facing and product teams discuss specific feedback.” Meetings like this can be used to contextualize the feedback, supplementing dry analytics with specific anecdotes while giving the product manager the opportunity to ask questions.
Let Your Colleagues know What Type of Feedback You Want
Make it easier for your colleagues to gather customer feedback by ensuring they have a clear sense of the organization’s overall goals and priorities (in the form of Values, Mission and Product Vision statements). Use this to establish a framework for the relevant types of feedback you seek.
“Many product teams find sharing an internal-facing product roadmap with the entire organization a great way to provide transparency, display priorities front and center, and show off achievements while keeping requests that don’t align with current strategic priorities and objectives at bay.“ [source]
“To be truly effective, the conversation must be a continuous one. Ensure there’s frequent conversation across your organization about product strategy, goals, and progress toward them. Help your teams help you by sharing regular updates about what you’re working on with everyone across your organization. That way, they always know where your priorities are and where cycles are being spent, and can therefore provide you with the most relevant feedback.” (Excerpt from “Building a Customer Feedback Machine: How to Create (and Maintain) a Customer Feedback Process for the Whole Team“)
As JT Pedersen writes: “Product managers cannot have one-time meetings and expect input-on-demand. Yes, they’ll get some, but they’ll miss even more. It is important to solicit, and be open to, feedback on an ongoing basis.”
Feedback from stakeholders within your organization can be extraordinarily valuable. To make the most of it, 1) let the organization know what constitutes appropriate feedback; 2) inform them how to submit it, and how it will be used; 3) use the feedback how you said you would, and show the organization the results. Solicit feedback from across your organization, from the Executive Leadership Team and Sales, to the Support and Services organizations. Balance the internal perspective with the feedback you receive from other channels.