How to Get Valuable Product Insight from Customer-Facing Teams

Internal feedback can come from lots of different places within your organization, and it’s essential for a product manager to capture and address it all, regardless of where it’s coming from. Let’s take a look at which groups are the most influential and how to handle their input.

We recently published a report on The Influence of Feedback on the Product Development Process, based on findings from a survey of 200 people in product roles of varying seniority at a range of organizations. One of our key findings from the survey is that product teams across the board say feedback from customer-facing teams like sales and support is highly influential when it comes time to prioritize their product roadmaps.

The Influence of Internal Stakeholder Feedback on the Product Roadmap

Internal teams ranked by level of influence over the product roadmap

We can make a few observations from the results in the chart to the right.

First of all, there’s no surprise that customer-focused functions dominated the top spots for this question, as any customer-centric organization is going to put the customer at the front of the line when it comes to new features and functionality. Customer Experience will be primarily bringing proactive elements to the user base (i.e. how can we make things better and easier) Customer Support brings a reactive focus to the process (this is what customers are complaining about, etc.).

Sales coming in at No. 2 shows that generating revenue and growing the customer base is obviously essential for the company, and the wish lists of prospects are being brought to the attention of product management by the folks in the field trying to close deals. Balancing the demands of the customers-to-be with the current customer base represented by Customer Experience and Customer Support can be one of the toughest challenges a product manager faces.

Slightly more than half of the organizations we surveyed say Engineering input is highly influential over the product roadmap, with those suggestions encompassing everything from addressing technical debt and upgrading the architecture to the feasibility and sanity checking of features and enhancements generated elsewhere.

Perhaps the most surprising finding is that Executive input on the product roadmap ranked dead last, with fewer than half of the respondents viewing  the leadership team as a source for the contents and prioritization of the roadmap.

Collecting Feedback Can Be a Full-Time Job If You Let It

Working-with-the-teamGiven the variety of sources providing product feedback, it’s no surprise that collecting and managing all of these inputs can take up more than a quarter of a product manager’s day at 12-plus hours per week! Which is why it’s so important for product managers to have the right tools, processes and procedures in place to facilitate and streamline feedback collection to ensure they still have time to do the rest of their jobs.

Get it Now!

Let’s look at each group of internal stakeholders and examine the best way to get their feedback:

Customer Experience

Some say customer experience and product management should be two of the most aligned parts of the organization, as both functions are focused on improving the customer experience. Product management concentrates on “what” users can do with the product while customer experience is locked in on “how” those users will do it.

Since these activities don’t happen in a vacuum and are so interdependent that product management and Customer Experience must always be in sync. That means there should be a lot of sharing and collaboration, with the roadmap being no exception. While you might guard the rough drafts of your roadmap until it’s ready for prime time, Customer Experience should be the exception. While product management has the final say in what’s in, what’s out and the priorities, Customer Experience’s input and agreement should be a prerequisite before you start shopping it around to other departments.

How does this work in practice? Every user research project should end with Customer Experience presenting you with their results and you jointly deciding what should change based on those findings. Since product management is involved in that judgment call, they can plug any new enhancements or tasks right into the backlog and slot it for future releases.

Additionally, product management shouldn’t be putting anything on the roadmap without asking Customer Experience to assess the potential impact on the user experience and perform user research when necessary to flesh out the implementation. In short, each party’s work informs the other’s.

“Crafting a truly delightful user experience requires a cross-team commitment from the organization to keep users’ needs and feedback in mind during every step of the product lifecycle,” says Phil Dahnke of UserZoom. “A successful Product Manager will champion the user and strive for a shared vision amongst the UX, UI and design teams based on their customer and user research.”

Sales & Marketing

At the end of the day, you and your sales team both want the same thing—more customers—but sometimes the relationship between product management and sales can be confrontational; each side thinks they know better about what the product should be or do to increase usage, adoption and purchase. There may be no solution to that argument, but regardless of how well you get along there is no excuse for neglecting the nuggets of insight your sales team has to offer.

Even though it’s in their best interest, providing input to the product team isn’t always seen as a priority for a commission-driven salesperson, so product managers need to make the extra effort to squeeze what they can out of their sales teams.

  • Leveraging CRM as a data source. If the sales organization mandates usage of a CRM system, then there’s no excuse not to make it work as well for you as it does for creating forecasts. Work with your sales operations teams to ensure there are fields for capturing product feedback for customer meetings, potentially even making it a mandatory field to guarantee salespeople remember to input something. You can then create reports that extract that data for your convenience.
  • Sit in on sales reviews and get copied on trip reports. Hearing sales team members recount their experiences is a great way to learn what prospects care about. These debriefs especially useful when sales doesn’t get the deal and you can see if a product capability or shortcoming could have made the sale possible.
  • Tag along when you can. Getting into the field for sales calls lets you see first-hand how your target market is responding to the current offering and hear what else they’re asking for. Plus those hours in the airport and post-meeting meals offer a unique opportunity to spend quality time with sales staff and hear what they really think.

Customer Support

Your support team is on the front lines with your customers and are dealing with lots of cases each and every day. It’s not their job to make the product better, but it is their job to make customers happy.

As they’re dealing with confused, frustrated or angry customers, they’re not thinking about feature enhancements, they’re trying to turn a question or complaint into a positive outcome. That’s why you need to make their workflow work for you.

There are a myriad of software solutions the team may rely on, and your support team likely lives inside those tools. So make it easy to harvest product feedback from this team by making those tools work for you as well.

  • Putting hooks into the product management pipeline right into the software. Support staff should be able to flag or tag a case as a possible enhancement, which would ideally show up in your inbox, your view of the system or in a report generated by the support team on a regular basis. You can then make the call one-by-one to see if it should end up in your enhancement queue.
  • Having support run reports on their caseload to identify the most common sources for customer issues. If you see that a large percentage of complaints are coming in around a specific topic, it’s a good indicator that it’s something you should address in the roadmap. It also give you some great quantitative backup when justifying the worthwhileness of a given enhancement if it’s generating X complaints per week or could save your support staff a certain number of hours.
  • Actually talking to them. Have a group lunch where they can have a free-form conversation about what they’re seeing them, what bugs them and what might make customers happier. It’s a fantastic opportunity for the team itself to discover common complaints or problems they may not have realized are showing up more often. Remember that your job is to simply listen and facilitate and not try to defend the status quo or start whiteboarding solutions.

Engineering

Including the requests and inputs of the technical organization is essential to making sure your product maintains a scalable and viable infrastructure.

“The more you involve [engineering] in the creation process, the more ownership and responsibility they will take for their role, and the more creativity and enthusiasm they’ll bring to the project,” says Andre Theus of ProductPlan. “Collaborating with your engineers, and soliciting their help, will make them feel more like a part of the process, and less like order takers simply being told what to do by a product manager.”

Aside from informal chats and brainstorming sessions, giving engineers the opportunity to flag something as a potential roadmap item in their bug tracking tools is a no-brainer.

Of course engineering also serves an essential function as the sanity checker for what’s actually possible in a given timeframe. Not running your thinking by some key team members could lead to embarrassing moments down the line when you’re promising features way ahead of any realistic schedule.

Executives

When the leadership team asks for something, the most important thing for a product manager is to make sure that an executive feels like their request was heard, considered and decided upon. You can’t expect executives to use the same tools and software you’re using, so collecting requirements from these leaders will be a more manual process.

Hold regular chats with executives about what they’re looking for, what they’re hearing from customers, investors and board members. While they’re suggestions may range from vague to extremely specific, each item should be considered, tracked and—most importantly—followed up on. 79% of respondents to the The Influence of Feedback on Product Development survey say they follow up with stakeholders all or most of the time, but that number should be 100% when it comes to an executive’s request.

When you inevitably decide not to slot a suggestion in the roadmap, be prepared to explain why that decision was made, using evidence that goes beyond not having enough time and the like. Show that careful consideration was given and there are legitimate reasons for your call to leave it out.

Rules for Every Function

Regardless of whether it’s an intern or a CEO, it’s your role to always be listening and considerate. Sure a large percentage of what gets brought to your might be undoable, impractical, unimportant or just plain silly, but great insights can come from anywhere.

Another good rule of thumb is to facilitate cross-pollination of multiple stakeholders from different areas. Getting a salesperson, customer service agent and engineer in the room at the same time to chat about a topic can unearth synergies that individually might remain undiscovered.

In short:

  • Open Ears, Open Mind
  • Keep It Simple for Stakeholders to Submit
  • Record, Review & Revisit
  • Close the Loop

About the Author

Heather McCloskey

Heather J. McCloskey, Inbound & Content Marketing Manager at UserVoice, is a former broadcast news producer. When she’s not writing pieces about product management and customer support here, she can be found putting pedal to the metal behind a sewing machine or painting watercolor comics.

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