Conversation with Hubert Palan

About Hubert

Hubert Palan is Founder and CEO at productboard

 

Key Points

  • The role of the Product Manager and how it relates to customer feedback
  • Constant communication and research is critical to figure out what’s happening around your product and the overall market
  • Using Jobs to be Done to understand your users’ motivations
  • Sizing opportunities based on the problem’s and the segment’s  importance to your product and business
  • Identifying when feedback is relevant
  • Measuring success throughout the development cycle
  • The different types of segmentation we can use
  • How to overcome organizational cultures that don’t provide easy access to customers
  • Cross-team collaboration and alignment

This conversation is part of a series of interviews with experienced Product Managers on the topic of Customer Feedback. Listen and read on the site at your pace, or subscribe below to get a weekly email (for 7 weeks), containing selected interviews and highlights.


Audio

Transcript

Daniel:

Hubert, Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and your background in product management?

Hubert:

Sure, so most recently I’m the founder and CEO of a company called ProductBoard which is funny enough a product management platform and what we do is we actually help product managers understand the feedback and use the research and either understand the markets and what problems people have and look for patterns and then use that to drive the prioritization decisions and align teams and communicate roadmaps. The topic that you are asking me about is very much aligned with what we do as a company but my background is, previously I was a VP product management at GoodData which is a business intelligence platform I had a team of about sixteen people and built the whole UX team and product marketing and documentation and product management as well. Prior to that I was actually in business school in Berkeley and management consulting, like project managing more than product managing, large data warehouse implementations.

Daniel:

Cool.

Hubert:

That’s like my real, quick background.

Daniel:

That’s a very … A wide ranging background which is very cool. I was wondering before we dive into particular subjects, what do you understand to be customer feedback and how important is it to you and your work as a PM?

Hubert:

I think that the role of the product manager, primarily, is to understand the markets. Which means who are the people, how are they segmented, how are they structured? Is it homogeneous, heterogeneous groups of people, and their problems. Obviously like you know we’ve done more business focused product managers we taking this from product managers but really I think that the main job of the product manager is to represent the customer, and make sure that he/she understands the problems that people have really well. The product manager is someone who should go out and talk to people and collect feedback and by feedback I mean both if you have a product already in the marketplace to understand how people are actually using it right now and you know what’s working, what’s not working, what’s missing as well as if you don’t have a product in the market yet even like early on, conduct qualitative research and ask people about what problems they have.

The discussion should be always about why are you trying to accomplish. What is the goal, what is the problem that you are trying to solve and far less discussion about what do you think about a particular solution.

Daniel:

Right.

Hubert:

So you know what … The question of why feedback is important, is important because you need to talk to people who have problems to make sure that you really understand the problems well, because only then you can go and you can come with really good solutions.

Daniel:

Right, there’s always these thoughts you have to go out of the office and you have to talk to these people and how does that look for you? How do you find out about new things or problem areas that are important to your users and customers when you already have a product, let’s start from that and let’s begin…

Hubert:

Yes, I think that the requirement… I mean you know you need to find the best way and the best like means of collecting the inputs and understanding the people. If it’s going out and talking to people in person, that’s great. The advantage of that is that you can actually see the emotions of people and you can… You know it’s like Sigmund Freud would probably prefer having someone in his couch rather than talking to someone on the phone because you can connect with the people more and you can really connect on the emotions and if you feel, if you see just like a little gentle facial expression, where the tone of the voice combined with the body posture and all that.

You are really like a detective and you are trying to understand whether the people, whether what they are telling you is actually true. If you are sitting in-front of someone, obviously you can see even like Steve Blank was my professor at Berkeley always used to say that you need to see the pupils in the eyes dilate because if you touch on a really big important problem, or later on if you present to someone a solution because you are testing already a potential solution, you want to see the person in real life. Of course video conferencing is the next best thing, it’s all about how strong rapport you have with the person and if it’s in person you can be warmer you can build a better relationship and so people are more open, less guarded and so on. That’s the advantage. But it doesn’t mean that getting out of the building is the only way, especially as you asked if you have a product already.

For example, what we do at ProductBoard, we use Intercom–or you can use other tools–where we very actively reach out to people when they sign up. We ask them why they sign up. Even in their sign up process we actually ask people what was the reason, what’s the job to be done, what’s the main goal that they have that they are trying to achieve. There is different ways where you can kind of get to the bottom of what are the problems that people are trying to solve, but depends what market you are, what type of customer base, how close you can get to them. You need to choose the tools that you are going to use for that accordingly.

Daniel:

Right, you mentioned there two different ways to talk to them in terms of frequency. One is contextual and when people sign up and when they do something on your app and the other is going out actively and seeking out their input. I think a common question for PMs is how often should I do this? I mean, I’m I dong this enough, I’m I covering the bases for what I’m trying to figure out? Do you have any rule of thumb on this?

Hubert:

I don’t know if… Like across the board I’m not going to tell you in number like how often, you should see the customer as often as you can. You should talk to your customers, obviously it’s different like if you are building a very specialized scientific tool versus business to consumer social media company, you have by the nature of the product, you have different type of encounters with the customers, so the frequency would differ, but you should be… Your job as the product manager as we established is to understand the people and their problems. You need to have the level of confidence that you can describe, if someone asked you, “Hey, what is important to this customer segment, particularly your customers?” You need to be able to answer those questions.

And if you feel like I should rather go and you know maybe things have changed, maybe the market has shifted, maybe there are new solutions that people have, maybe the problems themselves changed a little bit, you know it kind of depends what problems you are solving right? Some problems are more ephemeral than others and change faster than others but if you have a product through which you can communicate, you should be in touch with the customers. You should be reaching out, you should be asking for feedback you should be asking always why. Then also your role as the product manager, you might be asking me that later, but as an organization you have ears. Like, many different ears, the sales people are talking to, the support people are talking to the customers.

You should be on top of these conversations in the sense that if there are any patterns emerging, if there’s any signal in the noise like maybe there is a new problem that you didn’t know about, like there is a new customer segment that you didn’t know about. You need to talk, communicate closely with these internal ears like the different teams. But then you need to follow up. If someone you know just comes and says, “Hey I talked to this guy and this is what he told,” you should really follow up. You shouldn’t always trust blindly, you need to understand why you need to get to the bottom of the things. Did I answer that?

Daniel:

Yes. It’s always different and I … That’s one of the kind of thing that I’m trying to figure out is, if there is some sort of pattern but I guess there probably isn’t but …

Hubert:

Well, look I think that you know, I mean the rule of thumb in the industry that you hear is that after you interview like five eight to ten people, the patterns start emerging. The patterns in terms of problems that people have. Of course the question is how big, how wide your focus is, right? Like if you start “I’m going to improve people’s lives” that’s a very big problem to solve as opposed to some very specific little niche problem that people have. That will also determine how many people you need to talk to really understand the problem. The more people you talk to, the better you understand the patterns and the more you see whether it’s heterogeneous segment or homogeneous segment of people. You can automate it, like if people sign up, you should automatically ask questions and suggest “Hey I’m going to get you on a call” and so on. All that helps you to talk to many more people than you would otherwise be able to if you have to manually reach out to everyone.

Daniel:

Yes, a while ago you touched on the subject that you are trying to figure out what the job to be done is. What kind of question leads you to finding the job to be done? What sort of line of questioning let’s you find out about that particular context and why the people are trying to get things done in your account?

Hubert:

Yes… So look, jobs to be done that’s one framework out of different frameworks that you can find that really are about understanding the problems or the needs or the pains or the jobs to be done of people. This is really like one of the goals, goal oriented design. The same thing like what are the goals that people have?

Kind of what I’m trying to say it doesn’t really matter how you call it or the framework you choose. I mean obviously you need to be consistent and you can establish common language with your team so that everyone speaks the same language and everyone is on the same page about how you are going to approach the research and understanding the problem. Really this is about talking to the person who you believe represents the target segment that you are after and initially you don’t know what the segment is so that you talk to more people but eventually you will kind of understand what are the similarities, what is it that people have in common and you ask them what is it that they are trying to accomplish.

Then you know obviously what you need to understand is that there is different levels on which people can start talking about. They can choose one of the very specific thing that they have that is related to the current product solution that they already have or they can start very very high level. If you are a product manager designing a better car, you already limited your space because you already said I’m going to solve the problem of transportation by the means of car, and I constrain myself within that space. If you say I’m just going to solve the transportation at large, then you can go and can say I’m just going to invent teleport because I think it’s the best means of transportation and you can do that.

The key thing when you are doing the research is kind of set the constraints right, like how are you going to look at the problem that you are solving because you can always go one level up and you can always take a step back and say okay and then eventually end up with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and like “how do we make people happy?” We all contribute to people happiness because I’m making product managers happy and you are going to make people happy by writing a book and so on. Then it’s just the right interviewing technique to make sure that people really expose the problems that they have. There’s techniques like the switching, the concept of switching is also around the jobs to be done  community. Just like when people make decisions, when they switch from one solution to another, to problems that they have, they are most likely to expose the real criteria and the real problem they are solving.

It’s like why did you decide to use these product? I don’t know that’s because … There are a little techniques that can help you really figure out how they made the decision.

Daniel:

Right, and when you figure out a few things that people are trying to get done and maybe you start to see okay so maybe I have, one or two or five people that are trying to do this. How did you identify a few to see how if that applies to a larger base of customers. I mean what is the next step after that?

Hubert:

That’s extremely hard. 😀 That’s super hard, right? It’s like as a designer you cannot take the one person. There’s one person and design the best solution for the one person but then if the one person Is the only person on the planet, unless he is willing to pay you a hundred million dollars, you are not going to build a hundred million dollar business. I think there’s two ways to go about it, one is intuition. I think if you look at the Steve Jobs of the world, there is just a lot of intuition. He believed that the needs that he had were a representative of many people out there. While you have the intuition wether it’s like based on the understanding of the real world and the people around you on kind of mass scale or because you are a prodigy, it doesn’t matter, it’s intuition.

The second one I would say is that you actually know that the segment is big because you understand that segment. What I mean by that is that, let’s say that you are a surgeon and you know that there’s been this problem in the surgical community for many years how to conduct a certain surgery. The problem it wasn’t so much understanding of the problem and the segment, it involves coming out with a solution, and so because it’s been a problem that’s been around for a long time and it’s been well documented and everyone talks about it at conferences and it’s something that you understand because you are part of that segment and you’ve been entrenched in the crisis. Then you can kind of say “Ok I know it’s a large segment because I know this markets and it’s frequently brought up problem that needs a solution.”

Daniel:

Right.

Hubert:

The other way you could go about it is that once you figure out that you have a hypothesis around “Ok, I have a problem to understand,” then you would go and you would try to somehow quantitatively measure it but the way how you would do that is typically that you would come up with a solution and then you go and test the solution and see whether it really resonates. If you look at what fast moving consumer goods companies have been doing, Unilever and Procter & Gamble, they are running tests with their new products. They would launch the product in a test market and just like one small city here in the US somewhere in the mid-west so that it’s kind of independent and they would test it. If you can test already some solution, then you can start collecting some quantitative data. Collecting quantitative data kind of estimating the market size based on qualitative data, that’s very hard.

crosstalk

One quick thing is that the theory says that you should find who the ideal customer is for the problem that you’ve identified and then figure out a way to calculate how many people like that are out there. If it’s like in my case, a product manager building a digital product, I would go and I have this hypothesis. I’ve done my qualitative research and i have talked to many product managers and I feel like I understand the problem and now I need to go and figure out how many digital companies there are in the market and the different stages whatever the segmentation criteria and the descriptive characteristics there are and based on that I can do some estimates. If it’s a new market …

Daniel:

That’s if you are looking at it from the new side of it and if you are looking at it from the side of an already existing thing that you have your own customer base, you have your own user base and you sort of know what the needs are, through all these interviews and that kind of stuff. You find out about three new problems that you could try to solve and solving those problems are all aligned with your product strategy right now. You know that there are people interested in them but how can you try to measure the relative value so you can say well problem A is better than problem B and problem C?

Hubert:

Yes, right. It’s kind of a matrix. You have the different segments, you have the different problems and then the third dimension is the solution so you need to look at the relative size of the segment and how painful the problem is and therefore you know how much value you create, right? If it’s just nice to have… I mean if you cure cancer, obviously the value is very high, because you are saving lives. It’s like kind of the most extreme example and then in this case, let’s say if you create pancreatic… You find a solution to cure pancreatic cancer. You would look and you would go and you would look okay how many pancreatic cancers are there. That gives you kind of the market size and then you would figure out how much… what’s the value that you can extract out of the people, how much they are willing to pay for the solution. That gives you the market opportunity.

If obviously that’s… It’s an extreme example and that’s why I picked it because it might be a lot easier to do that, but the same logic applies to any other problem. If you are building a software tool, you know it might be more complicated because there is more competition, there’s more alternatives, people have different little preferences so it kind of gets more complicated but still, you should be able to do some kind of estimate. You look at the competing alternatives, how much they are charging therefore it gives you some framework you know what you could charge for it assuming you know the value is comparable to the other alternatives and you just like make an estimate and say, “but we are ten times better because: one, two, three, four, five.”

Then what you said, if it’s an existing market already, if it’s an existing category, or if you are just innovating along the sides of like okay cars, and I’m just building something that is faster or something that is safer. Along existing criteria, that’s again something that’s easier for you to estimate because you can interview people, you can look at historically how people value it, and you can do some quantitative research. If it’s a whole new category that’s obviously much harder.

All right like the example that I could give like … This company Gainsight and they created, they were the first ones in this category of customer success management. It was a category that didn’t really exist because there was no subscription business before and there was no need to make sure that customers don’t churn and so on. Initially when they started the company it was very difficult for them to kind of calculate how big of an opportunity it is because it’s a new market. It’s not like people don’t have that little compartment in their head already. It’s not like I’m better CRM system. Now if you say “I’m like Saleforce but I’m a little better” people get it right away.

But if there is no CRM systems they’re like “Wait what? What’s CRM in the first place?”

Daniel:

Let’s switch gears a bit into the running product. The running product is producing a lot of quantitative and qualitative data and everything is coming in and it’s very difficult to decide where to focus and what to look at. When a piece of customer feedback comes in, what happens for you? What do you do?

Hubert:

Here’s the thing, feedback is just an opportunity for you to learn something. If you have a product in the market place, that’s great because that’s really a way because people are interacting with it and so you can test more and whether it’s relevant to the problem that you are solving. You know really as a product manager you have two ways how to learn about the problems. You can either go and you can do what we just talked about. Ask about problems, tell me about what it is that you are just trying to get done… That’s one way. It’s from the problem side. You can show up with the solution and you can say, “hey look, this is the solution. What will it be useful to you?”

People will tell you yes, no maybe I don’t know. It’s again depending on whether the solutions are relevant to the problem that they have or not. You as a PM, you have these two ways how to go about it. You go and do research or you give to people’s hands a solution and then you wait for feedback. When people come back to you, when they are using your tool and they are telling you, “hey it would be great if you added this one checkbox here, or it would be great if you added one feature here.” The only thing that you are learning is that people have a problem that is not yet satisfied by your solution. You need to say, “okay, thank you that’s great that you are asking for this feature but tell me why you are asking for the feature,” so that you as a PM can understand the problem and then hopefully figure out a better solution than the person is asking for. It’s like… It’s no brainer. Again you are asking for feedback so…

Daniel:

I guess what’s hard is to figure out for now and maybe a couple of months from now. A few months from now another piece of feedback comes in and they say “Hey it’s like here is a pattern, here is something that I didn’t look at before and I thought that that’s what some guy asking for something that I decided to ignore. Your tool covers this kind of scenario. That’s what I’m trying to figure out. How do you see this problem, how do you try to… Hey, this is something that if related to something in the past now makes more sense, now it’s something that might be valuable for you to explore.

Hubert:

I think that you are not actually ignoring it, like you are sitting there and there is like a level like you are listening to all the noise and you are looking for the signals and there is a level that when the signal crosses that level and suddenly it becomes more important. It’s like “wait a minute, there is something going on.” There is a repetition, like the frequency increase, maybe the intensity like the importance of these things increase. Maybe there is something that I didn’t know. You know better understanding of the problem, new problem has emerged or there is a new group of people who have a problem that I didn’t know about. Your job as  a PM is to be constantly listening and looking for the signal to noise ratio and look for the patterns and when there is something that emerges, suddenly you feel like I didn’t know nothing about it. Let me know and let me look into it.

The way that we approach this, is that we say like especially in ProductBoard we say “hey, you should be organizing and centralizing all the feedback because that will help you identify the signal from the noise because if you see that people keep asking for the same thing again and again, there’s an indication.” It’s not an indication that this thing that they are asking for is the right thing for you to go and build, it’s an indication that it might be worthy of your time to go and explore it more and do the research and do the interviews in person and see the eye pupils dilate and all that.

It’s really about… It’s like being a NASA researcher looking for planets. I have a friend who works for NASA. They were looking for Earth-like planets and they were looking in the sky and there’s all the noise that’s coming in and they are looking for patterns that differ so that could go and they can scan closer to the part of the sky where this pattern is emerging. It’s the same as the product manager. You are listening and then you find a hot spot, you need to go there and figure out if it’s worth exploring or working on it because you should do the same model that we talked about the pancreatic cancer. Which is, is it a big enough segment, is the problem painful enough for me to invest into it and then does it justify a viable business?

Daniel:

When you ship something, what kind of thing tells you that it’s being successful? What kind of matrix do you attract or do you use any qualitative methods to back things up? What’s your way to finding out if something is being successful in solving people’s problem or not?

Hubert:

First you see the pattern, you see the signal of people ask you for solutions. It’s like qualitative you use somehow try to quantify. Then you come up with solution and then you use it go and then you need to test it. Before you ship it, right you should go through prototyping and you should ask people and like if it’s rating better in solving the problems that they have. Then when you launch it, again you have multiple ways how to figure out whether it was the right solution in the first place. By the way by launching again, launching can mean different things, because you can launch and then you can have it in your labs in the product. You can just like selectively turn it on for some people and collect feedback from them before you launch it across the board.

Then you know it depends how smart you are in your product architecture and your infrastructure, and how granular you can be in the testing. You can do very early-on some prototyping and then you do some iterations like mockups but then launch it within the labs, test it there, feature flag it, show it just to a few customers and then roll it out. Then look at the usage. You probably designed a feature because you decided that it’s going to be used frequently and it’s also an important problem. The frequency also depends on the product because there are jobs that you might need to figure out only once a year. Like taxes. You are not going to be working on your tax returns every month. The frequency is kind of relative again.

Definitely, are the people that you are building for using it? If they are not using it, what you would be looking at is like if they are not using it you would be asking why. Because if they are not using it just means that it either sucks and the solution is not good enough and therefore they are not using it or they don’t know about it and that means that your product marketing sucks because you didn’t tell them about it or they didn’t have the problem at the first place. Then kind of it’s a problem because you built something that nobody needs.

Daniel:

Besides all the things that you are talking about, do you have any particular method to follow up on people after you’ve shipped something that they asked for because it’s often people want to just feel included in the loop and in referencing the product, so what kind of process do you have for that?

Hubert:

In ProductBoard, we are using ProductBoard for Product Management and so in ProductBoard we show every  piece of feedback is linked to the piece of functionality. When we launch something we see on that feature you see all the people who asked and provided feedback. Then we go and through intercom we actually follow up. That’s one way of doing it. If you have a situation like a feature request forum (which I have opinions about and I hope to talk about some other time,) but that’s just like a centralized communication gateway or system. If someone suggested an improvement, which really is how to communicate “hey I have a problem.” Then you should follow up and you should let people know and then you also do like a mass announcement like release notes you know some of the products videos notifications and all that.

Daniel:

Going into what you just said about feature request forums. There are like two camps there: “Okay you should show them all the future requests so  people know that the thing that they are asking about is there.” That’s good because you centralize it, you have one thing. And there’s the other camp as well: “I don’t want to really show competitors or people outside the company the problems that my customers are having.” What’s your take on that? It’s a hard decision.

Hubert:

No, it’s a great question and it’s … I think that there’s different types of functionality like the requests or the problems. What comes into play is that I don’t think that you want to expose deep insights into problems that you know that no one else is solving and you have great solutions. If you come up with the way to solve the teleport you are probably not going to put it on the website and the detailed plan how you are going to get there. I think that strategically what you are communicating, you need to be careful about it because there is the risk of others just taking the advantage of what you discovered and what you learned. But typically on feature request forums you don’t find the ground breaking ideas.

The suggestions that people have are typically the small gradual improvements to the current solutions already. Like usability improvements or something just like basic missing functionality that is kind of table stakes and you don’t have it and people expect it and therefore they ask for it. It’s very rare that people suggest something that is very different and unique and in the space because by definition you should be the one who understands the problem the most because you are the one doing all this research and designing it and so on.

I’m just saying to make it public, I think that in the end it depends, but I think that there is low risk and the benefit of building relationship with the customers by what you say that people like to contribute and they want to feel that they are part of it. That might … The benefit might be bigger than the risk of exposing that, “oh we don’t have this report export to PDF yet.” “We’re working on it guys don’t worry about it and so on.” I’d say that stuff that isn’t like strategically differentiating, that’s really groundbreaking, that how you’re going to rule the world and bring a whole new category… You could probably communicate more transparently and kind of put it on the roadmap if you will.

With the goal of making people involved and also maybe lowering the support volume because then people see that the stuff that’s kind of obvious, like “oh they want this PDF report as well,” they see that it’s there and so you kind of help yourself. On the other end, this advantage and the disadvantage that you have by exposing and making it public is that people don’t reach out to you because they just go to the website they look at the forum and they see “oh someone already asked it.” Okay, so I’m not going to do it again. But if you don’t have it public people need to reach out, obviously less people reach out because it’s probably more difficult, but you have the opportunity to follow up and ask them why. That’s very important.

Daniel:

You touched on something there which is people that are the silent majority. And so there are the vocal customers that might want to say it straight away, might vote for a feature and might ask and can be complaining about. But there’s also the people that say, “yes this is already asked about so I’m not just going to bother anymore ” and you lose that signal.

Hubert:

Yes.

Daniel:

Do you find that, doing this other types of contacts that you’ve been talking about covers for the people that might be silent customers that are just happy but are just silent? Or do you still think that there are other things that you need to do to cover and try to find out what those people think? The ones that are not complaining the ones that are not reaching out to you in the first place…

Hubert:

I mean the biggest opportunity is like always in the people that you are not talking to. Like the people that are not converting, that’s the gold mine for what is wrong with your product, with your solution. And so that’s the people that are silent, because that’s the people who people who signed up. People who like it, and they want to be part of it, and they tell you “hey you should improve this and this and that” but you’re risking that there’s a much bigger segment of people that are not using you and you don’t know why. You need to reach out to these people. You should be regularly not just talking to your your customers like we said customers, but you should talking to your non-customers probably even more so to make sure that you are not missing an opportunity. You should understand why they are using different solutions and that’s the concept of switching, right?

If someone registered and is not using you, likely they are using some other solution for the problem that they have. Your job is to go and figure out like what is the solution that they are using instead and why is it better because that will help you understand the problem better and subsequently help you design better solutions.

Daniel:

I wanted to go over the issue of segmentation. In terms of how you look at customer feedback, which are your relevant segments?

Hubert:

There’s two things in segmentation. There’s base characteristics of the segment and then there is descriptors. Base characteristics and descriptive characteristics. The base characteristics, and that’s how segmentation should be really done, is you should segment the people by the problems or the jobs or the needs they have. That means that, you really group people by what is it that they are trying to get done. Like in our case, in product management there is a job of listening and understanding the research part. There is another job which is, okay now we are going to figure out all the solution and brainstorm the solutions. That’s a different job.

Then there’s a job of communicating it via a roadmap. There’s a job of strategic planning and alignment and deciding about what the product is in the first place. This is how you should be structuring the segments. For every customer that you have, you should be able to say why they are using your solution. If the solution is like very narrow, you know one specific thing. If you look at Intercom, they are going after Sales, Marketing, Support Product Management research, these are different jobs that they have. By the way when you talk to the guys at Intercom they admit that this is kind of a strategically a challenge for them… That they are solving for all these different jobs.

That’s how you should segment it. Now the problem is that it’s very difficult. People don’t have written on their forehead, “this is my problem.” You cannot easily identify that and so you need to figure out a way how to understand which job or problem segments that this person belongs to. You can ask them, you can like really if you have an interview you should be able to… After the interview you should be able to say “okay this person… research and roadmapping is very important for them and they don’t care about prioritization”. It’s a stupid example because it doesn’t make sense, but people could say “I care about roadmapping but I don’t care about research because I’m old school technical product manager who doesn’t want to talk to people.”

That’s one way to do it. The other one is that you look at the behavior and you look at actually how they are using the product and you could say “look, my product has this set of features, ten or a hundred features,” (depends on the granularity,) or you could say “I’m going to look at the people and the usage and I’m going to say: ‘if they use these features, that means that they have these problems'” Because if someone is using in ProductBoard the research board and they are integrating with Intercom and highlighting stuff, and trying to understand the problems, that’s probably safe bet that they are trying to satisfy the job of research. So that’s the second way, like the indirect way how to do that.

That’s the base characteristics segmentation. Now because you are in the business, you need to be able to also  look at these people from the lifecycle of how they are using this product. Because the needs are different when you are a current customer versus when you are focusing on adoption and someone is in a trial period, versus someone being a paid customer and so on. That’s something that you would apply after that. Like you would both from product marketing as well as a feature perspective. You would treat… Let’s say I have the people that research is important to and I would look at them and I would say “are they new customers or are they existing customers?”, like “what is the maturity in terms of the product.” Then from the marketing perspective, you need to come up with the descriptive characteristics and that’s the way how you go and how if you are looking at a conference and a crowd of people how are you going to be able to identify the ones that fit the segment.

That’s what you see and that’s why we segment people like B2B versus B2C. Is it a distributed team or is a co-located team? Is it a product manager or is it a designer? Whatever the descriptors are, that people have on their LinkedIn profiles, or that you can find out. They are the size of the company, funding stage. All this that can help…

Daniel:

It’s sort of a match between basic characteristics and sort of more like demographic characteristics right?

Hubert:

The demographics is really like “how can you describe the person externally?” If you are my customer and you are my customer because you have a problem, “how am I going to go and find a hundred other Daniels that are like you?” “How am I going to be able to find out?” Because they don’t have on their head “I’m a research minded product manager,” they have their “I work for a B2B company with series B funding in this industry, blah, blah, blah”… You need to figure out how you translate this base characteristics to descriptors so that you can go and target them.

Daniel:

Awesome. Going into problems that PM’s have, one particular issue which is kind of hard is… For some reason, especially in large organizations, some PM’s don’t actually have direct access to customers. Do you have any ideas why that is and how they can try to overcome that kind of problem?

Hubert:

Yes. I think this is a good question and I think that probably, I mean a few things… Like one big one that I think is culprit is just the mindset of the organization and kind of the lack of understanding that the job of the PM is what we just described and that the job of the PM is understanding of the customer and so on. Because traditionally, and this is by the way true, this is much more true for the tech companies. Again, the fast moving consumer goods, I don’t think that Procter & Gamble has a problem with the product managers not understanding their customers. Since the beginning they would be the ones talking and testing different new soap, a new different shampoo. In fact that’s the job of PM and they are very very involved. Somehow, especially tech and the kind of engineering companies we forgot that because the people who are driving those companies are the solvers. They are the engineers, they are people who like to come up with new ideas and in those companies, especially in large companies with this mindset, it might be difficult for the product managers to break through this culture of ‘we know what we’re doing because we’ve been in this business forever and we are great problem solvers.’ Problem solvers not problem seekers or identifiers. That’s one thing and I think it’s huge and so what I would suggest them to do if the PM is in such an organization is that you need to demonstrate the value of talking to the customers. If you do one interview, you should turn that interview into “okay look I went and talked to this one guy and here is what I learnt. Did we all know that?”

What I’m saying is that you need to be creative as a PM. You need to be creative in persuading others that there’s value in you going out and doing this on a bigger scale. You go out and talk to one customer. I mean it must be possible to find one customer, right? Even in a big company. Go and do the interview and then share the results of the interview and findings in an appealing way. That should help understand others around you the power of talking to customers and processing the feedback and hearing it from the horse’s mouth. Maybe even record it and let others hear it.

I remember, in my previous life, I was in this role, I was a product manager and the Head of the Engineering organization was very technical, obviously. He was like “we know what to do we’ve been doing this forever…” We took him, put him in front of the customer and we did like a usability interview/test. With this guy, the Head of Engineering in the room, and suddenly he was like, “Oh my God no one knows how to use it, it’s so difficult!” So, try to do that.

The other thing that I think is a concern for bigger companies is that there is a concern about the customer relationship. Because in bigger companies the customer relationship is a priority for many different parts of the organization. Sales is concerned that the PM who is not very very skilled–it might not be true but they think so–skilled in talking to the customers, that they might say something that might jeopardize future revenue. It may be the sales (over) promised something that is not true and now they are afraid that the PM really should reveal the cards like “What? No! Like, we’re not doing that!”

The same thing is with Account Management, like sales is usually first then they hand it over–this is again like business to business type of company–but in Account Management they own it, and Support, everyone feels like they own the relationship and they are concerned that the PM will be yet another touch point and the customer will be confused. You know, think about it. If you think about the user’s journey through the product. First it’s like Marketing touch, then salespeople and then there’s Sales Engineering and then there’s the Account Management and then there is Support and then it’s like one more guy who shows up and wants to talk to you. That’s probably another thing.

Another thing especially in B2B, I think is the complexity of the landscape, and the fact that buyers are not users, and there’s sometimes concerns that the product managers again are negatively impacting the dynamics there because the sales guy persuaded the buyer to buy it and users will hate it and like now you’re stirring the water again. All this comes in place in bigger organizations… I mean if you want to be a great product manager you need to break out of this and you need to get out and talk to the users and non-users as well.

Daniel:

As a segue to that, in terms of internal alignment, which is something that is also very challenging… What kind of cross-team processes can we set up to get the best input from all those ears that you already have talking to the customers, and those mouths also… all those people that are also spreading information? How can you try to figure out a way to make this productive and not a source of irritation and problems for the PM?

Hubert:

You as a PM you are kind of like a head. You got the ears and you need to listen to everything, and you got the brain to process and look for patterns and decide what’s important, then you need to communicate and make sure that everyone is on the same page. That’s a must. You need to create environment though, where everyone understands the problems that you are after. Because only then people can contribute and then suddenly you can harness the collective brainpower of all the people to figure out solutions. Instead of you telling them “hey, these are the solutions that we are going to be building,” you should make sure that everyone understands why… What are the problems… So that they can also contribute, and so they can even themselves answer “of course we are not building this because we agreed that we are solving these top three problems right now and we are going to ignore the others.”

That doesn’t mean like ignore… That doesn’t mean that we are not listening to the others, it means that that is not the priority of what we are working on right now. As the PM you need to do everything you can to share the problems. In reality, how this can look like, it can be as simple as creating a war room or like in the hallway, putting on the wall, the description of the big problems with little snippets of feedback from customers and quotes, and what’s happening with different ideas and so on… Because that shows that you are listening to people, that you like their involvement and then nothing is cooked behind a secret wall. When I talked to Des Traynor at Intercom, we chatted about this, and he said “you should see our walls,” They have the jobs to be done on the walls, the different jobs, and people are thinking and they are aligned, the whole company is aligned.

They have the team for marketing, then there’s a team for sales, they have a team for support and they have one for the platform because they are aligned under jobs. Your job as a product manager – the jobs-to-be-done thing and the “jobs” are so confusing – your job is to communicate the problems across the organization. As I said, put together all the evidence around the problem, and then on a weekly, monthly, quarterly basis, with the appropriate level of detail, always communicate what is it that you are learning, what you are hearing. Why some things are not prioritized over the other. It doesn’t matter I mean if someone’s coming to you ten times a day, it’s not that it’s going to change the priority because it represents just one customer and maybe in your segment that’s not relevant.

I think that you always need to make sure that when people come up with an idea that there is always a clear alignment around who is it important for, the solution and what problem it solves. If the context doesn’t exist, if people don’t have it, then it’s very difficult to have any kind of debate like “should we build feature A or feature B” because… it depends. Depends for whom and what problem it solves and then we can decide.

Daniel:

Just to try and wrap this up. What would some of your top recommendations be for product managers trying to make sense of customer feedback and trying to make decisions for the product in terms of things not to do?

Hubert:

I mean I thought about it and I thought of a list. Your job is to really understand the people really well. And understand the segments really well and their problems. And I think that is actually similar to Sales… You should avoid wasting your time where it’s not relevant. Meaning, people are happy to contribute and there are always people who want to be part of something, but they are completely irrelevant to you. There’s always these people who are like the free riders, the free users, people who don’t represent the target segment that you are after at all. People who have just crazy ideas because they are crazy. There are crazy people, right?

These people are often more likely than the others to reach out and they want to give you feedback and so on. You need to qualify, you need to make sure that you are spending relevant time with the relevant customer segments and avoid wasting time with–what we established is that you need to have the right context of what is the segments of the problems that you are solving. If there’s someone who’s telling you about this problem that you know is not as valuable and that the segment is small, you need to excuse yourself. Are you going to say, “hey sorry, this is not relevant” because you have limited time and you need to be focusing on what matters.

Be quick, I know we need to be polite… But it’s like when you go to a conference, or you go to a networking party. Then it’s like the story of everyone’s life. You go there, you don’t know how people are there, there’s no way how to figure out what it is, and then you strike a conversation and the guy tells you that he is in the horse-riding business and you are… I’m building a digital product management solution and it’s… As much as I’m interested in horse-riding (maybe), if my goal is to make relevant learnings from the conference for my business, then I should just say “oh thank you, that’s very interesting” and like after a few minutes you just leave. I know it’s harsh, it might feel harsh but it depends what your priorities are. Be careful where you spend your time.

Daniel:

Awesome. That’s very good. I guess that’s it. I want to thank you again, for your time …

Hubert:

Cool! Thank you Daniel for including me in this. It was fun.

Enjoyed the article?

Get actionable, useful content and resources on Product Management. Delivered straight to your inbox for free. You will also get in-depth guides to:

  • 20 Product Prioritization techniques (44-page PDF & cheatsheet)
  • The Kano Model (40-page PDF & spreadsheet)
No spam, ever. Unsubscribe at any time. Powered by ConvertKit