The Role of Customer Feedback in Product Management

I’ve been in a product role for about a year and a half now, and I’ve thought a lot about what separates great PMs from good ones. There’s definitely no right answer here. Oftentimes at large companies, responsibility is segmented such that PMs end up focusing on their respective strengths, whether that be analytics and experimentation, aligning opposing constituencies towards consensus, or GTM and execution strategy. Having said that, I’ve found that great PMs all share one distinctive characteristic: they are undeniably passionate about understanding their customers.

Ask most people what makes a great Product Manager, and they’ll likely describe a technical visionary adroit at identifying market opportunities that others routinely miss. While product vision is undoubtedly a desirable trait for a product leader, an equally important, albeit less glamorous skill, is the ability to aggregate user feedback, derive the right conclusion from that information, and effectively incorporate it into the product. Why is this so important? Because at it’s core, the fundamental responsibility of a product manager is to be the company’s leading expert on the customer.

Note that this is different from being the company’s biggest customer advocate. As a PM, you need to balance a number of disparate, and at times seemingly opposing considerations. Do you de-prioritize a task addressing the number one customer complaint in order to launch an experiment that will validate a hypothesis that could lead to your next major market opportunity? Is your customer complaining because they have not yet tried a competitor’s inferior product and are unaware of the existing feature parity advantage you offer? These are just a few examples that exemplify why understanding your customers does not mean you must always be advocating for them.

For most digital products, there’s no shortage of qualitative feedback sources. PMs often have access to customer interviews, satisfaction and churn surveys, support tickets, and sales conversations to name a few. A PM should ideally monitor all of these feedback sources in order to clearly identify a product’s strengths and shortcomings. Realistically, PMs sometimes become inundated with too much information, and other tasks like spec writing, one-off fires, drafting emails to defend product decisions, 1:1 meetings, and data analysis take precedence over the relative monotony of digging through feedback. In short, PMs can become so focused on continually shipping features on time and delivering the next great product, that they may neglect to take the time to fully understand the implications of their last product launch.

I’ve found that most of my friends observe this phenomana as well, regardless of what type of company they work for. The reason, I believe, is because this behavior is rooted in human nature. It’s easy to declare before a product launch that you plan to obsessively monitor feedback, and everyone will agree this is important. In actuality, it can be incredibly difficult to focus on what’s important when you’re instinctually compelled to address every urgency as it comes up. This is especially problematic considering what’s important is seldom urgent, and what’s urgent is often unimportant. When urgent bugs or initiatives emerge, feedback on the last product you shipped usually takes a back seat.

So what does it actually take to be a customer expert? Above all else, it means you make compiling feedback a top priority, and you hustle. Valuable feedback from the sales team rarely arrives unprompted in your inbox. You likely will need to first seek out sales managers and make an argument as to why their team’s time should be spent logging and compiling feedback when they could be selling. Similarly, free-form comments left on user surveys don’t sort themselves, and will likely be categorized incorrectly if you delegate that task to someone that does not share your expertise for the product area. You then need to take the time to holistically evaluate all of these different feedback sources to identify consistent themes, and then condense and communicate these into action items in a compelling manner. PMs that take the time to do this will grow beyond knowing whattheir customers want and will eventually develop an understanding of why customers want whatever they’re asking for. This distinction’s importance cannot be overstated. Usually when a customer asks for something, their request reflects an underlying need that can be better addressed by a solution the customer hasn’t thought of yet.

I’ve been fortunate enough to work with several PMs that I would classify as great, in large part because they obsessively focus on understanding their users’ underlying needs. While technical ability and data analysis skills are essential tools for any product manager, these PMs understand that their ultimate value-add is acting as the foremost authority on their product and how customers actually interact with it, as product innovation that ends up winning deals ultimately depends on it.