Build Better Products and Services Through ‘Optimal’ Customer Feedback

“Build Better Products and Services Through ‘Optimal’ Customer Feedback” with Greg Ryan, Marketing Consultant and former Cisco Product/Research Manager

By Lisa Rathjens

March 2013 Event

Greg has over 20 successful years in the product manager sphere in a wide range of industries, at companies like Cisco, Schlage Lock, JD Powers, Nissan, Plantronics, and K2 Skis.  He is passionate about helping companies improve product quality and success through customer research. His presentation addressed following four steps: why collect feedback, planning and preparing to gather feedback, how to gather the data, and types of research to consider.

Using colorful examples from his time at Cisco, K2, and Schlage, Greg relayed the “why” of gathering direct customer feedback, whether the customers are existing or prospective. Of course, it is important to gather customer feedback to know what product to build, but you also need to gather it to know how to sell that product. Gathering the right kind of feedback will help you understand the features and functionality your customers want, and it will help marketing and sales teams create more effective, targeted messaging. Greg cited “Winning at New Products” by Robert Cooper that claims the “#1 cause of new product failure is insufficient or faulty marketing research”. While many high tech companies are at their core engineering driven, they also need to be market and customer driven in order to sustain and build on initial product success.

In discussing the importance of preparation and planning before gathering customer feedback, Greg summed this up in a three-word admonition: “Do your homework!” This means asking the right questions, listening carefully to customer input, and reading between the lines. Customers will often provide only hints of what they want, and you will need to work to dig out the real needs, even if it seems wrong to you initially.

To design an optimal customer feedback process in your company, Greg identified nine required steps. The process starts with (1) selling the benefits of gathering customer feedback to your internal org, including engineering, senior management, and other stakeholders. This will help you in many ways, not just avoiding “poor” product design but also leap-frogging the competition, increasing “share of wallet,” and increasing customer loyalty.  Next, you need to be sure your product has (2) an executive sponsor who is customer-focused as well as (3) champions and customer evangelists across the organization, in all the stakeholder teams. These allies will be invaluable when product schedules get tight or budgets become constrained, and customer-requested features may be at risk.

When determining what feedback to gather, you need to (4) look at the entire customer lifecycle, starting from when your customer becomes aware of your product all the way past purchase, to service and support calls. Selecting a targeted customer panel to gather feedback can be very helpful, but you will also benefit from a well-crafted survey of a much broader customer group, to be sure that you get feedback from all the actual users of the product. Further, before the product is even built, you need to (5) get involved in the requirements definition, to be sure to bake the customer perspective into the PRD, MRD, betas, field trials, etc. Be sure to consider not just customers, but (6) anyone who interacts with the customer, such as partners, sales, marketing, and services teams.

Assessing the process and drilling down on the pain points is easier when all the stakeholders have agreed to (7) a predefined set of goals and metrics, which are customer-defined. These should be realistic, and should benchmark the competition. Greg challenged the group that (8) some portion of compensation should ultimately be tied to customer feedback and a satisfaction metric. Finally, a successful customer feedback process needs to include a final step that (9) closes the loop both externally with customers and internally with the execs. Let the customers know what actions you are taking based on their input, and let the execs know how you measure and track the results.

When designing your customer feedback research project, there are numerous considerations, determined by your product, target market, and customers. The methodology you choose, the sample size of your customer group, the wording of the questions, the method of delivery – all these and more will influence the success and value of the feedback you gather. Only use small focus groups to collect qualitative data, such as establishing terminology, setting goals, testing major features with important customers, etc. Then validate that data by collecting quantitative feedback, always using a large group of customers that provides a broad cross-section of your target market across geographies and segments. The type of information you gather will vary, depending on if your product is new or existing, how and by whom it will be used, and the profile of the customers across geographies, business segments, etc. Key to your success will be focusing less on the product itself, and more on the customer need that the product is intended to fill.

In conclusion, Greg reiterated that the customer must be at the top of the hierarchy in any product planning. If you do your homework, listen to the customer, and keep all product stakeholders focused on your customer’s needs above all else, then your product will be a success.

Lisa Rathjens has spent the last 15+ years in the midst of the explosion in mobile computing, working at Palm and then Motorola.  She focuses on designing and building products and services that encourage and enable developers to build apps that delight and surprise, and that people love to use. She is currently looking for her next great adventure, and can be reached at: and .

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