Customer satisfaction isn’t the key to business success anymore–at least according to UserVoice Founder and CEO, Richard White, who shared his vision about the future of customer support and product management during his keynote at UserConf SF back in November. (You can watch his speech and find a full transcript here) So if customer satisfaction is “out,” what’s the new “Holy Grail” of business? Rich believes it’s all about customer retention:

“It’s really hard to build a good business these days with really really shitty retention. It’s very very hard to build a good business. You can grow very quickly but you can’t sustain it unless you’re actually providing something people want and keeping them around.”


Support and Product are the Kings of Customer Retention

That’s right, customer retention is the product of both a company’s customer support and product teams. Customer support’s job is primarily to keep customers around, while product is responsible for providing something people want, and for best results, both product and support need to work together to keep customers (happy) since one without the other will not be sustainable.

According to Rich, there’s two main ways companies can improve customer retention: 1. Support teams need to “answer the damn email” and 2. Product teams need improve their products.

Customer Support: Answer the Damn Email

It’s been clear for a while that customer support plays a large role in customer retention, which is one reason UserVoice and many others have focused so diligently on improving it over the past few years by searching for the most scalable solutions and fine-tuning tools to tackle support’s biggest challenges. During his speech Rich noted the unique challenges faced by many companies in recent years,

“In the kind of businesses we all operate in, [support] is actually kind of a hard problem, right? We have a lot more users than traditional businesses, so how do we scale when we’re growing very fast as a business? How do we make sure things don’t fall through the cracks? How do we make sure we answer all the damn emails? It’s not trivial.

Today, with the proper tools and the right team, it’s not hard for growing companies to provide excellent service to a high volume of customers because we’ve collectively been able to solve many of the biggest customer support problems, something that’s been a primary focus at previous UserConfs.

“Self service is a huge part of how we scale to be able to answer the damn email, and a lot of the talks over the last couple years have been about scaling support because this has been the biggest problem, which is why most people think UserConf is a conference about customer support.”

Now, with a strong customer support foundation in place, it’s product’s chance to shine.

Product: Improve Your Product

At face value, this seems like an overly-obvious ask for a product manager since the majority of product teams’ time is spent doing just that: improving products. The real challenge, says Rich, is “actually improving the right things.” Without data, product management is more art than science, much like marketing was 15 years ago.

“We don’t have enough data so product managers are in that vacuum kind of acting like politicians, getting by on convincing you, “Yeah, this makes sense because of this.” We don’t have a dashboard that explicitly says “Yes, these are the right things to do,” and “Yes, we can track and see whether they worked.”

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While there is some data available today for product managers–it’s not necessarily the right kind of data, and it turns out many product managers are still struggling to build processes for collecting and using data to make roadmap decisions. According to a recent survey of 300 product managers, executives and PMs have the most influence on product roadmap decisions, yet PMs report this feedback as the least valuable–regardless of company size, PM experience, business models, or product price points. Meanwhile, product managers say the data they find the most valuable is the least represented.

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“Across all companies, no matter what stage of business, size of business, experience of the Product Manager, there’s a huge desire for PMs to get more feedback from users, support, and analytics.”

So why is there a disconnect between the data that’s actually influencing roadmap decisions and the data that PMs feel is most valuable? It turns out only 14% of PMs surveyed had an effective process for collecting  feedback from support and sales–and only 16% of product managers surveyed reported they had an effective process for collecting feedback from their users.

UserVoice Product Manager Survey Findings

Even in cases where the data is available, Rich says PMs still struggle to use it, “We assumed that if we gave product managers a lot more data they would be like “awesome!” It turns out we need, just like support, lots of process and workflow to make sense of that data.”

In other words: product management isn’t going to evolve into a science overnight, but if product and support folks work collectively to build processes to for collecting, sharing, and applying data to the product roadmapping process, product management will soon be just as data-driven as marketing is, something Rich believes indicates we’re on the right track:

“I think this sort of vision puts us on the path to finding the holy grail; to finding that amazing customer retention, the kind of customer retention that just makes you a blow away awesome business.”

(Trophy Photo Courtesy of Brad K.)