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Two Common Mistakes Made by CPOs and How You Can Avoid Them Image

Two Common Mistakes Made by CPOs and How You Can Avoid Them

By Karl Rumelhart

This article originally appeared in FastCompany.

Being a chief product officer isn’t easy. Not only must you focus on areas such as user experience, strategy, and analytics, but you also need to care about how the product is built, marketed, sold, and serviced. Put another way: You interface both with customers and colleagues, and you’re judged on both the product and the business.

Given these juggling acts, it’s unsurprising that CPOs commit all manner of mistakes. Some are small, some are large, but the most worrisome are those you don’t even recognize as mistakes. Here are the two most common ones I’ve seen over the past 20 years.

Error 1: Being too rigid about doing one-offs

As a product manager, you’re taught to develop products not for customers, but for markets. Thus, you focus on, say, government contractors, not Booz Allen Hamilton. This mindset makes sense: If you custom-built features for every client that asked, you’d sacrifice your long-term vision for short-term fixes.

Unfortunately, this thinking has become so entrenched that it’s blinded us to the benefits of special requests. Consider the following scenario:

A big customer wants to add a feature to their cloud-based dashboard. On one hand, you want to keep your whales happy. After all, as your counterpart in sales reminds you, it’s annual recurring revenue from V.I.P.s that keeps the fish fed.

On the other hand, you don’t want to stray too far from your carefully calibrated roadmap, nor do you want to overwork your staff. How do you decide which path to prioritize?

As a product person, you’re inclined to resist what appear to be esoteric requests. You’re trained to seek solutions that are repeatable, and one-offs are the exact opposite. Indeed, the whole system around you—the team playbook, the tacit guidance from your boss, even the way you’re promoted—is set up to reward achieving scale.

Allow me to offer an alternative approach: Instead of viewing this support ticket as a problem, view it as an opportunity. View it as data from the people who rely on your product every day, in the field and on the ground, to run their business. If these diehards think the new feature is essential, then it’s worth your consideration.

Sure, the feature may not align with your roadmap; in fact, it may throw a monkey wrench into it. Yet, if COVID has taught us anything, it’s that plans must be flexible.

What’s more, if one of your major customers is complaining about a shortcoming, chances are, others are suffering too. Even though you designed and developed the product, you don’t have a monopoly on its trajectory. Indeed, it was a Twitter power user, not Twitter, who invented and popularized the now-ubiquitous hashtag.

So, the next time an outside-the-roadmap suggestion lands in your inbox, don’t dismiss it by default. Instead, treat feedback for what it is: a gift.

Error 2: Focusing more on future customers than present ones

Product people tend to be dopaminergic; we’re more excited about an upcoming bell and whistle than we are about the core function we spent the past six months developing.

This restlessness is essential for innovation, yet sometimes we let our fervor for the Next Big Thing color the way we approach the Big Picture of our job. Specifically, as thrilling as it is to chase a new customer, it’s equally important to serve an existing one. In fact, for subscription-based products, the latter may be your most important business consideration.

Again, don’t get me wrong; converting prospects is essential. Yet novelty-seeking can also blind us to the importance of serving customers who are already on board and aren’t necessarily looking at our competitors but could be swayed to switch with the right pitch.

There’s no better example of this current-customer-first philosophy than Amazon Prime. Here’s how Amazon founder Jeff Bezos recalled his motivation: “I want to draw a moat around our best customers. We won’t take them for granted.”

Amen! In launching what has become the internet’s most successful membership program, Bezos sought to make sure his most loyal users stayed that way. Take that lesson to heart, product leader. Rather than trying to guess what people in the future may want, focus on making sure that people right now are overjoyed. Your job is less about recruiting than it is about retaining.

What does this theory mean in practice? Stop judging your success based only on, say, the number of new licenses sold. Instead, factor in renewals, referrals, and surveys. In fact, these latter criteria can serve as an early-warning system, since they reveal not only how many customers you have, but also how happy they are.

The bottom line: When developing your roadmap, be careful not to only listen to requests from your sales team, but to also listen closely to your customer success folks. Only they can help you understand which requests will retain the most users.

In conclusion, it’s paramount that CPOs are intentional when it comes to prioritization and focus. Not only are these decisions essential to your role, but they’re also some of the most important decisions you can make to help drive long-term, efficient growth for your company.

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