The Customer Is Always Right


P.S. from the Product Stack is a newsletter from the Product Stack that aims to answer your product questions with actionable insights based on real-world experience. The questions we answer here come from our monthly webinars, one of which is right around the corner on March 18th. You can register here.

(Ronan here, 👋)
In preparation for our upcoming webinar entitled "Treat your Strategy as a Product" (there's still plenty of time to register, by the way), I wanted to revisit a previous roundtable discussion we had on strategy to make sure we aren't going to cover the same ground… spoiler alert, we won't be. I also took the opportunity to review some of the questions we received from the audience to see what more we can discuss here, in our mailbag.

During that roundtable webinar, one of our panelists mentioned how challenging it is to ensure that your own team is clear on the product vision, not to mention your customers. The conversation focused on the vitalness of clarity because people on the frontlines need to be fully aware of the issues your product is there to solve and for whom, such that expectations are correctly set with customers.

This prompted a great question that challenges this idea a bit that I wanted to take a deeper look at. An anonymous listener asked,

"How do you balance a unique strategy and vision alongside the ever popular statement that the customer is always right? Shouldn't the customer’s expectations set your strategy?"

An excellent question that should serve as a constant reminder to us all that while a good strategy should allow us to say no to certain things, we must be very careful saying no to requests that keep recurring.

Personally, I’ve always struggled with the phrase “the customer is always right”. Today it sounds like an anachronistic business aphorism. However, in a customer-centric, modern software development universe where customers freely give their feedback privately and very publicly ALL THE TIME, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is actually significant truth here.

While many teams collect customer input and plot it on a benefit-over-cost grid to determine what new features to build—which is good and well, by the way—the real challenge is placing this feedback in the right place on these axes.

As a team you may automatically recoil from certain customer requests that run counter to your vision—at best lowering it on your priorities grid or at worse rejecting it out of hand. This is when being genuinely open minded and receptive to customers is vital.

When customers request specific features—whether you like them or not—what teams need to truly understand is the underlying issue that prompted that feature request.

Now, this could genuinely be a case of them not understanding your product and your vision and therefore not realizing that this is something you would never consider. But then that raises a host of other issues, the foremost being why is there a disconnect here and how can you fix it?

On the other hand, maybe you’re jumping to a “no” too quickly and not listening hard enough to the real ask.

Fascinatingly, both Tracker and ProductPlan give concrete examples of this for very similar features during the roundtable webinar. Customers were looking for features that didn't have obvious alignment to current product strategy. But they listened, they cogitated, they wrestled with it and in the end, both developed features that enhance their products to this day without deviating from their vision. They also both came to the same conclusion, sometimes it’s just customer semantics.

So the next time you are balancing customer feedback against your strategy for guidance, I encourage you not to jump to quickly to “no” and instead try to dig a bit deeper to understand what the customer is really asking for — they are mostly likely right.

One last point to keep in mind, and something that Kevin Steigerwald did a great job explaining, is that the majority of us are juggling six versions of our product at any given time. I know, you’re scratching your head, watch the video (it’s 32 minutes in). In essence, software products should be viewed as fluid entities that exist in multiple states for multiple people in an ever changing competitive landscape. That’s why strategy is hard and why reducing subjectivity is essential and the topic of our next webinar.

If you have the time, I urge you to visit our page and (re)watch this webinar. The lessons shared by our powerhouse panel of veteran product leaders from ProductPlan, Pivotal Tracker or Jama Software are invaluable.

If you have questions now, join us on March 18th as we will explain how and why you need to treat your strategy as a product and do our best to answer as many of your questions as possible live and on air.

Cheers and stay healthy,