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Be a more effective product manager by democratizing feedback

“Broaden where you get feedback from — only then will it be truly representative of your customers and target market.”

Sophie Lalonde
Senior product manager at Productboard

This post was first published on Built In. 

When you’re building a product, there’s never any shortage of opinions. You’ll hear all kinds of feedback from countless sources, whether it’s a salesperson who knows exactly which feature you need to land the next deal, a marketer who swears their idea will help you stand out from the competition, or even an investor who wants you to capture a new market.

Here’s an example from my own experience. In my previous role at a venture capital firm, an investor once dismissed a startup pitch for a service that would help people take care of an everyday task. His reasoning? “My wife would never use that product.”

So what’s the problem with that scenario? The investor was trying to take a mental shortcut. Instead of thinking through the value of talking to different types of customers before defining a target market, he talked to the first person around and deemed her to be the target market. And this sort of thing happens all the time.

As product managers, our job is to fulfill the needs of our target market. But in order to find that target market, you cannot just listen to the loudest (or closest) voice in the room. You need to ensure that you’re aware of the bias that’s inherent in each person’s opinion and strive to broaden the voices you listen to so that feedback is truly representative of your customers, market, and community. Only then can you start to segment customers, identify trends, and start solving your target users’ problems. 

In other words, to be an effective product manager, you need to democratize feedback.

Start by getting more representative feedback

The first step to democratizing feedback is to understand who you’re currently listening to and look for ways to broaden those perspectives. For example, do you only collect feedback from current customers? If so, you can learn a lot from talking to prospects, too. They might show you that people care about a different use case than the one your product team believes is most important. Or, you might uncover an entirely new persona or target market you can cater your product toward. 

So how do you do this? Start by having a tool that centralizes all the feedback you collect. Then figure out how to tag your feedback so you can determine how much of it is coming from customers, how much from prospects, and how much from any other dimensions you care about. Next, you can audit it to see which groups might be missing and decide on channels you can tap into to fill those gaps. For instance, consider which of your sales team’s tools you could tap into to gather feedback from prospects.

Segment the feedback you’ve collected

Once you’ve gathered feedback from a broad range of sources, you will want to review it and potentially use it to inform your future product decisions. But note: You need to take a critical view of the feedback you receive. That requires you to consider who your target customer is and learn how to put an emphasis on the feedback that fits that profile. Then you can do a better job of understanding what your target customers want and need.

Segmenting your feedback is a critical part of this process. You can do this with a product management tool (like our own Productboard) or manually by collecting and sorting through feedback in Excel. Either way, filtering feedback through different lenses will help with your decision-making. You could group feedback based on jobs to be done and then see how the use case differs depending on the company’s size, number of teams, lifecycle maturity, or industry. Once you’ve explored all these dimensions, you will start to see which clusters you want to focus on. 

One word of caution here: We tend to think about segmentation in terms of categories that we can see or that are easy to identify on tools we already have, like segmenting by company size on Salesforce or Crunchbase. But we can learn so much when we segment in more difficult, complex ways. 

Some often overlooked but important dimensions could include whether a company is more operational or strategic or whether it’s digital-first. When you segment feedback across these dimensions, you might get new insights you wouldn’t have reached when segmenting only by visible dimensions. You might learn, for example, that your product could be used by a wider segment of people and increase your total addressable market.

Democratize feedback and create better products

Let’s return for a moment to the venture capitalist I mentioned earlier. The anecdote illustrates several of the ways you can go astray when collecting feedback.

  • Problem 1: He started and ended his research with a single person. 
  • Problem 2: He quickly jumped to the conclusion he could identify the target market.
  • Problem 3: By opting for the most visible segment (people within a certain income bracket), he neglected a more meaningful way of segmenting potential customers.

I hope you can see by now why each of these points is problematic. You never want to rely on a single person to inform your product strategy. You also don’t want to assume you understand the target market before you’ve collected representative feedback. And finally, the most visible segment won’t always be the best segment for your product.

In this case, we actually learned that our target market wasn’t defined so much by a person’s income as it was by how busy they were. So our total addressable market ended up being much larger than the venture capitalist’s quick judgment led him to believe.

If you’ve been wondering how to apply these concepts, I’d like to leave you with a few questions. Be sure to ask these of yourself and your product team as you’re collecting feedback:

  • Are we only getting feedback from one group, like our current customers or customers who are churning?
  • Do we know the profile of our prospects? What are they are trying to achieve? What main jobs do they need done?
  • Have we made any efforts to see how our product resonates with people who aren’t similar to our current product team? 

These questions will help keep you on track so that you democratize feedback. They’ll help you collect information that better represents your prospects and customers. And, ultimately, they’ll help you build better products as a result.

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