An Insider’s View on Product Management

May 2, 2009

Should you listen to your customers?

Filed under: Business Strategy,Product Management — Gregory @ 8:18 pm
Tags: ,

Ford Model T There is a trend in today’s business to get closer to customers and let them directly influence product roadmap and features. Indeed, with the democratization of open communication and the internet, customer feedback programs are growing in popularity. Those programs are sometimes referred to as crowdsourcing and are adopted by high profile companies such as Dell IdeaStorm , Starbucks MyStarbucksIdeas and SalesForce IdeasExchange. Consequently, customers’ wishes, hopes and desires are getting added into products roadmaps with less and less scrutiny. After all, users should be the best judges for product enhancements. Without a doubt, incorporating customer suggestions into existing products is a proven approach to bring in incremental improvements and ensure customers retention. In fact, within the software industry, agile development methodologies have became all the rage in recent years and rely on the promise of constant customer feedbacks and iterative enhancements.

However companies should resist the temptation of taking this idea too far. Product managers must be careful not to confuse customer suggestions and feedback with the underlying bigger problem they are trying to solve. As Henry Ford famously put it: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse”. Similarly, did anyone asked for the light bulb before Thomas Edison invented it? What about Sony’s Walkman? Keeping ahead of the competition and bringing to market the next relevant product take imagination and creativity. By solely focusing on present customers’ issues and existing solutions, companies unconsciously hinder their capacity to innovate, pay less attention to external industry trends and become more vulnerable to competition.

For companies, the key to a sustainable business strategy is not only to understand what customers want today and enhance existing product lines, but also to realize the limitations of this approach and encourage investments in longer term innovations.

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