Product development is broken: Empower your customer-facing teams

Over my decade-plus long career, I’ve worked in several different departments: community, marketing, web, support, and public relations. Having worked solely for consumer-focused companies in a public-facing role, I’m somewhat of a subject matter expert in what customer-facing teams do.

In all my years working in those customer-facing roles, there was only one department where I could actually impact change within the product or the company without what amounted to an act of god.

Anyone want to guess?


Marketing sucks at speaking for the customer

I can’t hide behind the “I am a trained marketing professional” with that header: some of you in the marketing field are gesticulating at their screens right now and probably have some choice words for me.

Marketing sucks for speaking for the customer.

Yes, Marketing runs focus groups and user studies. They create customer personas and psychographic profiles. They are the masters of the NPS score. Product will figure out a roadmap of things to make and Marketing will tell them (to a greater or lesser extent, depending on a large variety of factors in your organization) what key consumer groups want and realign that roadmap, and its features, accordingly. Marketing figures out the tag lines, the imagery, the pitch. They figure out how to attract or acquire or develop audiences and customers. They model and tinker with the lifecycle flow of those customers. They are constantly optimizing and augmenting how and what and whom to send information to.

You know what’s missing in all of that work?

Actual people.

Track back far enough and you’ll find actual people who were asked real questions by a survey or maybe even a human (probably one in a hired agency, but maybe not, depending on your organization.) The data that Marketing brings to the table in order to impact Product decisions, feature sets, messaging, and rollout plans — that’s all synthesized and analyzed to the point where the actual people have ceased to exist as actual entities.

Data is not bad

I am absolutely not saying that Marketing is bad or wrong. (Some of my best friends are Marketers! Love you, Kristina.) Marketing is a hugely important component of a company’s success, and the work detailed above is valuable. As with everything, all of this data collection has to be done for a specific purpose: the adage that Marketing is a boondoggle for people who speak jargon and party is, unfortunately, still a very true stereotype. We’re going to assume the function that Marketing serves is being done by competent individuals — and that is to say, it doesn’t need to be an actual Marketing department. Lots of companies eschew the word these days. Startups, for example, sometimes don’t have anyone with a Marketing title until they’ve been around a couple years — and yet Marketing functions begin early in any company’s life cycle. After all, someone needs to figure out who the customer base is, how to grow it, and how to keep them around and using the product for as long as possible.

Customer-facing teams need to be part of the Product process

Time Warner Cable is currently running a TV advertisement explaining that their on-hold wait times are being drastically reduced. The commercials are actually quite funny and you should watch them — but they also highlight a sad reality that Customer Service sucks.

It doesn’t have to suck, though. We’re living in a world where employees are competent but even a well-trained team with the right tools will suck if they don’t have the power to give customers the information they need or fix the problems they’re faced with.

As someone who has spent the past year running a customer-facing department that handles all inbound inquiries from our community, I have a deep and personal hatred for longstanding bugs and vague explanations. Our service is growing very quickly: we have millions of users and that count is increasing rapidly every month. Product and Marketing sit in meetings, beaming at their charts that skyrocket up and to the right, and I look at those charts and feel slightly nauseous. Once, in a fit of mania, I told my boss that he’d have to build me an army soon if we kept growing as we were without empowering the people working in my customer-facing team.

Whether we’re talking about Support folks who answer questions and solving problems or Community people who are monitoring and talking with people who use the company’s product, these employees are your customer-facing teams and their expertise and knowledge is worth its (proverbial) weight in gold. Every day, you pay them to talk to real people who use the actual products your company makes in order to stay in business, and yet these teams are rarely part of the product roadmap process or communications planning. If the teams are included, they are largely brought in towards the end of the process solely to get the information they need to do their job, which is perceived as talking to or answering questions from the community or customers.

If that function is only a slice of what a customer-facing team actually does, or if that’s all they’re empowered to do, your company is wasting human resources: your customer-facing employees have valuable data that can positively impact every part of your product cycle and, by empowering them to do just that, you will positively impact your employee’s work and morale.

Literally everyone wins.

Data is good

If Marketing’s stereotype consists of people in business suits spending tons of money and speaking jargon, Support and Community teams stereotypes depict red-faced people standing on desks, gesticulating wildly at forums and tweets while screaming “but the community is upset!”

Customer-facing disciplines are inherently qualitative: our day-to-day consists of talking to actual people. Quantifying those conversations is difficult, to put it mildly, but it can be done. Just like Marketing can bucket customers, so too can customer-facing teams. We have boatloads of data at our disposal and, depending on the abilities of your organization, tools can be built to help track and analyze customers and turn qualitative interactions into actionable quantitative data.

When presenting recommendations to the Product team, my current department creates retrospectives about technical issues, Support ticket volumes, trending issues with the community, and gives recommendations based on these metrics while also building in sentiment, press, and normalizing outcomes based on other external or ongoing factors. With twenty minutes notice, I could tell you what’s happened on our site in terms of sentiment and volume for the past year as well as how my team’s workload has changed and shifted during that year to reflect the trends.

Marketing needs charts and graphs to go up and to the right. Support and Community folks need people to be happy. It’s often a given that Marketing will have the budget and tools and clout to do what they need in order to achieve growth and retention. They’re seen as a revenue generator while Support and Community is seen as a cost center, but is still supposed to drive loyalty and retention and impact user happiness.

This isn’t Us vs Them

I’m taking the piss out of Marketing in this article, but to have a functioning organization, Marketing and customer-facing teams have to work together and actually get along. This requires mutual respect and understanding of each other’s mandates, the importance of each other’s work, the realities of what each department does and what it takes to accomplish that work, and an equal voice at the table when talking to Product.

This goes for all teams, by the way. Marketing, Community, Support, Business Development, Product, Engineering, Analytics… Name the team, they need to work together, understand each other, and respect each other’s work.

How to empower your customer-facing teams

How many of you have longstanding bugs in your products, or longstanding issues that are the bane of your customers’ existences? Yeah, me too. It’s not unique to you, or me, or anyone.

So how do you start empowering your customer-facing teams?

  1. Give them the tools and resources to create a comprehensive and data-driven list of problems, hopes, and dreams of your customers. To pull this off, your customer-facing team has to do a lot of work. This list should not look like a madman’s list of demands before he lets the hostages out of the building. The best recommendations come with a clear and quantifiable story, detailing the issue at hand, the recommended fix, the people impacted, and the risks and rewards if the change happens or does not happen. If you’re starting this process for the first time, take it slowly, and piece by piece — but once you start, make it a habit because it will become an essential part of your company’s workflow.
  2. Listen to what the customer-facing team is presenting. Bad news sucks. Hearing that a new product or feature you toiled over for six months is reviled is a bitter pill to swallow, but every company faces this hardship at some point. Once the customer-facing team has recommendations and insights, get the right mix of people in the room — from leadership down to individual contributors who make the products — and listen with an open mind. Then ask questions and challenge the recommendations, but do so understanding that you might have a bias If you need more data or information, make sure you do this entire process over again once the team comes back with what you requested.
  3. Do something about it. Here’s the hard part: put the recommendations into your roadmap. Does it suck to fix a longstanding bug that will take three engineers a quarter to complete instead of making a snazzy new something that will be front page news on TechCrunch? Yes. But honestly? Listening to customers in this comprehensive a fashion and doing something about it can, will, and should be a front page story on TechCrunch (and despite my devoted husband/editor of these articles doubting it — yes, I really believe this is TechCrunch-worthy.) It’s still that revolutionary.
  4. Make this a proactive cycle. Everything listed above is about fixing what’s broken and digging yourself out of a hole. Usually, that’s a necessary first step, but it’s not the end state. Once you’ve established a workflow, make it proactive: in early planning sessions for product features and changes, bring in stakeholders from customer-facing teams and run them through what you are planning but also ask for their feedback. Sometimes, they won’t have any but ask questions, make requests, and get them to do research and gather data to help you gain insights into the wants and needs of your customers as well as predictions on how customers will behave after launch. Make this a regular occurrence, early and often, and hold both Product and the customer-facing teams accountable. They should to listen to each other and bring data to each meeting to further help make the product great and ensure customers will be happy and do what the company wants them to do at and after launch.
  5. Replicate this cycle for everything that touches a customer. The above cycle starts with Product but is not limited to it. If it’s customer-facing, bring in the team you hired to focus entirely and solely on the customers. I’m not telling you to make them the arbiters of all these decisions: but they need to be consulted, involved, and their knowledge heard and respected. After all, Marketing wouldn’t make a logo without talking to Creative or Product, and Business Development wouldn’t pull off a partnership without working with Marketing and Communications — so why do we relegate the customer-facing teams to the realm of after-the-fact?

Customer Service has historically been viewed as a dead-end job, or one done by mindless drones. Community Managers have historically been seen as powerless mouthpieces and corporate shills. These bad associations have their roots in a broken organizational workflow.

Empower your customer-facing teams and give them a seat at the table when figuring out your product and communication roadmaps. We’re living in an age where connectivity is a constant and consumers are empowered to impact companies. It’s high time we listen to the experts who make a living doing nothing but understanding the ins and outs of those consumers. Our product roadmaps are broken and we have to make them better. Empower your customer-facing teams. They have what you need to fix it.

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