How to (not) let customers kill your product

Don't let your customer kill your product

This blog has been written for us by Michel Roth – someone we’ve known for some time and who has a long experience (and strong opinions) on B2B Enterprise software products.

Imagine you’re building the next Ferrari. What do you think would happen if you reduced the number of cylinders in the engine because one customer asked? Or added big side view mirrors for towing caravans at the request of another?

Of course, anyone can see that this would result in a car that’s not even close to being worthy of the Ferrari name. You might offer configuration options but you stay true to the vision of what makes a Ferrari a Ferrari.

So if this is so clear, why is this problem so disturbingly common in (B2B) software products?

Well, strange as it may sound, your customers are great at killing products and it’s up to you to stop them!

So what happens?

Most great products are conceived to solve a problem that nobody has solved yet, or even better, that nobody knows exists. This wisdom is not new. As far back as the beginning of the 20th century Henry Ford made a great point: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

So it’s no surprise that the first iterations of products are closely based on the vision of the creators. And the successful ones deliver what the market wants.

So what could possibly go wrong you say?

Reality Check

Pretty soon after the product is finished, the first customer is landed. Champagne (or Cava since we’re in startup mode) for everyone!

Success continues as several more customers are added. And after a while, it becomes clear from the modest list of customers that there is one that stands out. Perhaps that’s because they are the largest (and represent a significant proportion of the company income) or because they are the most well-known brand.

This customer is a raving fan of your product but they just need this one thing added to make it even better – usually yesterday. You really hadn’t planned on doing this but since you don’t want to disappoint, or even worse, lose (gasp) this customer, you decide to develop this custom feature.

Or another common scenario is that your product is doing well and then suddenly Sales informs you that you have a massive opportunity with ‘Gigantic Inc’ where there is a huge cheque waiting for you. But the catch is there is just one feature missing. Fix that and the deal is done.

Building a house-of-cards

Fast-forward 5 years and your product is a mess. It’s expensive to maintain, impossible to navigate and difficult to configure.

What happened?

There was such a brilliant and clear vision for your product but YOU let your customers kill the product.

Adding just one feature for one important customer – is it really that bad? Yes, it is – because in my experience, once you go down that path, it will happen again and again.

The problem is that you may not immediately notice any negative effect on your product when you implement a custom feature for the first time and so you’ll assume that there really is no harm in it. But by the 10th time the damage will already have been done!

You’ll wake up to find out that your product has become a house-of-cards – ready to collapse at any moment.

It is now impossible to support and configure because the product will have become an illogical collection of features stacked one on top of the other. The time pressure to deliver quickly means features get developed with a different look and feel and are built to the needs of one customer rather than being made relevant for all. Whilst there may be good intentions to go back (once the pressure is off) to clean up the mess – of course, it never happens.

And it has also become much harder to market – the roadmap is constantly changing as new custom work is done and planned enhancements get delayed.

How to not let customers kill your product

But isn’t it the goal of every company to listen to customers and keep them happy?

Let’s review some important tips to prevent customers from killing your product

1. Learn from the girl I didn’t date
When I was young I had a crush on a very beautiful girl. After a while, I built up the nerve to talk to her. I remember that it felt great and I got the feeling that she liked me as she really listened to what I was saying – I even started dreaming of the names of our kids. Of course, she never spoke to me again.

Ironically this ego-shattering experience helped me to deal with customers – I treat them very much like she did me (well, I try not to shatter their ego).

You should always listen to customers – heck, talk to as many of them as possible. Let them know that they are being heard but don’t let them tell you what to do and never make any promises. The important thing to remember is that it’s your job to collect information and combine it with all the data you collect from other sources to decide how to evolve your product to benefit ALL your current customers AND your future customers AND your business.

Develop the features that fit with your vision and roadmap. If you see no other way out of specific customer demands then carve out a dedicated piece of your development resources for these type of features.

To paraphrase the words of Abraham Lincoln “You can please some of the people all the time, you can please all of the people some of the time but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.”

2. Be tougher than Rambo

This is easier said than done (it is said that a smart bulletproof vest wears Rambo for protection) but it is important to hold on to the vision for your product and stick with it.

Yes, that means saying no to that big bag of cash that the prospective customer is dangling in front of you. Yes, that also means that you might have to let go of that large customer that needs custom functionality to be built into your product – I have seen too many instances where a large customer effectively holds a product hostage.

This is why it’s important to have the power to say no. If you are in a startup, make sure you stick with your vision if it’s getting traction in the market even when a potentially important customer tries to take you down a different route. Of course, financial buffers make it easier – so it helps if you are well funded. If you are in a larger company make sure you get executive support and sign-off for your plan to stick to the (well-articulated) vision for your product.

Also, make sure that you watch out for ‘Product Stockholm-syndrome’ where a company is such a big fan of a certain customer that they automatically think that the feature requests of that one customer are representative of all customers and prospects.

3. Become Steve Jobs

Even if you are in the position to say no to customers I’ve still seen products evolve into a weird collection of features that don’t resemble anything like the original vision for the product. That’s because you as the product manager didn’t stay focused on your vision.

Steve Jobs is the perfect example. When Apple created the first Mac there was huge pressure to have it be customizable so, for example, different hardware could be added. Steve Jobs was fanatically against this because his vision was that Apple was selling customer experience and in order for it to be flawless Apple had to control everything about that experience from A to Z. As a result, the first Macs were not customizable. In fact, special screws were used to prevent people from changing the Mac in any way.

Conclusion

Hopefully, I’ve been able to convince you that evolving your product by building lots of custom features is not a great idea. It’s short-term thinking that can destroy the future of your product. I know from experience that it’s hard to resist but it’s essential to stick to your vision if you want long-term success.

Bio

Michel Roth is a passionate, pragmatic and experienced B2B Product Management professional. Over 20 years he has worked in startups and some of the largest tech companies of the world. He’s always on the lookout for ways to make the biggest impact for both his company’s products and customers. You can reach him on [email protected] or connect with him in LinkedIn https://nl.linkedin.com/in/michelroth.

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