Welcome to our Age of Product Excellence series — a deep exploration of the Product Excellence Methodology, the product leaders who practice it, and the excellent products that result. Join us as we shine light on the strategies and thought processes behind an excellent product that customers use and love.

“The best software products are surprisingly simple — they provide a venue for people to do the real work they’re trying to accomplish.” That’s Claire Milligan, Co-CPO of Certify Inc./Chrome River, a private equity-owned company with a portfolio of travel, expense, and invoice management brands. Over the last eight years, Claire has played an integral role in the company’s growth from launch to 12,000+ customers today, overseeing product strategy during its many mergers and acquisitions.

We sat down with Claire to chat more about her approach to leading a product organization spanning multiple brands, the value of leveraging partnerships to deliver personalized customer experiences, and why major business transformation happens when you focus on one thing rather than everything.

Claire Milligan Chief Product Officer

One size does not fit all

Together, Certify Inc./Chrome River is comprised of eight expense management platforms — Abacus, Captio, Certify, Chrome River, ExpenseWatch, Nexonia, SpringAhead, and Tallie — plus additional travel booking, invoice, and procurement platforms that can be integrated with many of those brands. Each platform was intentionally acquired to serve the diverse needs of various customer segments, industries, and regions.

One size does not fit all. That’s our motto. So instead of trying to force an individual platform to address all needs, we bring together multiple platforms. This way we solve the problems of specific sizes and niches, and as a result, everyone’s.

“What we aim to have is one solution for everyone and not one-size-fits-all.”

While the company’s competitors struggle to deliver a seamless customer experience internationally and across industries, Claire and her team are able to offer more to customers, and faster.

A product strategy that is both human and data-driven

Claire comes from a design background, and design thinking plays a key role in her approach to product leadership. A self-identified connoisseur of human experiences, she is passionate about observing analog workflows and discovering ways that software products can automate or recreate them.

“It’s all about how humans accomplish their business tasks and how we can make that better.”

But it’s not just about human experiences. When it comes to product strategy, Claire makes sure to consider data and design thinking as well:

  • Viewing the market from an objective financial standpoint. “We pay special attention to different verticals, market segments, or niches that are not yet addressed by our brands. Once we set our sights on an area of focus, we dispatch one of our brands to own it and grow there.
  • Processing inbound customer feedback. “I am a regular lurker on all of our brand’s productboards. Before we build any kind of feature, we go back to our customers and ask them the “five whys” to really understand what they’re trying to accomplish. We do our due diligence on the potential impact of new features on all relevant customers.”
  • Conducting research with a design thinking mindset. “We seek to improve the function of our brands by optimizing their key differentiators. For example, the strategy for Nexonia is deeply integrated with two accounting systems, so we focus on increasing performance there. This means maximizing speed and efficiency. It’s all about making the brands really sing.”

“I’ve learned the most in terms of taking the nugget of an idea that comes through the sales process and going directly to real customers for research. Because if you just build a feature that a salesperson puts on your spreadsheet, nine times out of ten it’s not the right thing.”

A comprehensive prioritization process for new features on the roadmap

Claire and her team deliver annual roadmaps to stakeholders within the company. To explain the how and why behind proposed products and features, engineering resources are taken into account along with the following data points:

  • Each feature’s user impact score is calculated and ranked within productboard
  • Features are scored against the year’s strategic drivers, which tie into the company’s overall objectives
  • Insights within productboard are linked to specific features and ranked according to the needs of different customer segments
  • A comprehensive valuation process is completed, including:
    • Total ARR (annual recurring revenue) from customers requesting new features
    • Estimated new ARR if the company charges for new features independently
    • Estimated revenue from deals that close because of newly launched features
    • The time new features would save support, service, and other teams
    • Estimated new revenue balanced against the cost to build new features

“With this approach to the roadmap, we can look at a feature and say ‘wow, that matches our strategy. No one asked for it, but it would pay for itself in less than a month.’ Or, ‘Wow, that feature is requested by so many people, but given how long it would take to build, its cost won’t be covered for three years.’”

For Claire, it helps to be so certain of product decisions. “At large organizations, you bring a lot more realism to the table. But this helps you make visionary bets with confidence.

Major business transformation happens when you focus on one thing rather than everything

In the book Scaling Up, author Verne Harnish argues that you’ll accelerate your business much faster if you focus on doing one thing right rather than focusing on everything. A parable about selling commercial dishwashers is used to illustrate his point. When an organization began to focus solely on selling to hospitals and not just anyone, costs went down and profits went up. Major business transformation happened as a result of the organization restricting their lens of focus.

The lens of focus can be restricted in each of Certify Inc./Chrome River’s brands to stimulate rapid growth. It falls into Claire’s hands to identify the specific specialty and market niche of each brand.

“You’ll accelerate your business much faster if you focus on doing one thing right rather than focusing on everything.”

“We look into the customer base of each brand against the bigger context of all our brands and zero in on ideal customers who buy super-fast. What makes them unique and different, and which of our brands makes the most sense for their needs?”

Claire also studies the detractors of each brand. “One brand’s detractors could be another brand’s best customers. If we are bold enough to transfer our customers off one platform and into a more fitting one, the cost to support them goes down, their satisfaction goes up, our revenue goes up, and everyone is happy.”

“One brand’s detractors could be another brand’s best customers.”

This process is repeated each time Certify Inc./Chrome River integrates with a partner to account for new skills and assets.

Enabling customers to be heroes

Claire and her team’s product strategy and one-size-does-not-fit-all philosophy are carefully crafted to solve the real problems of their customers.

“The job of expense report software is to transform spending activity into data that a finance team can evaluate and make business decisions off of. Success for us and them is when users spend money and all of a sudden our system knows how much and why.”

Because at the end of the day, the ultimate goal of Certify Inc./Chrome River is to equip customers with the tools they need to easily accomplish finance-related tasks. Now that’s Product Excellence.

. . .

We hope you enjoyed the second interview in our Age of Product Excellence Series. Hungry for more? Read our kickoff post on the defining characteristics of products considered truly excellent by their users and our interview with Postmark App’s product lead.

Find Claire on her website, or follow her on Twitter.

Dottie Schrock Jul 26, 2019