Successful user centric product management in a B2B environment

Being a software product manager for a B2C product is often perceived as “more fun” compared to working in a B2B environment. This has several reasons, one of them is having easier and better access to users in order to measure, test and learn and in consequence build better products.

Although this is a very sketchy saying, there is definitely a lot of truth in it. Basically in many B2C environments you can just grab random people from the street for testing new prototypes or easily convince your existing customers to take part in interviews, testing panels or similar just with the right incentives.

In a B2B environment, everything is a bit more difficult, especially because often the customer does not equal the end-user. This must not be an excuse though to not follow a user centric design approach and you should not end up building products in a silo, only listening to internal stakeholders and ignoring the real customers and end-users. Because if you do this, you will end up building a product which is either not solving the real problems of the users, a product which is not using its full market potential or the wrong product at all.

Also users of B2B software expect a product that is built to solve their problems and that is tailored towards their needs.

So what should you do instead? Let‘s have a look at some initiatives you as a product manager can pro-actively initiate and utilize for better customer and user insights:

In-app communication and feedback

In the old world of B2B software products there was nearly no direct communication between the software vendor and the end-user. This was due to limited technological possibilities but also because there was always a party in between (such as IT, Marketing or HR) acting as a filter by trying to control all communication and being the sole point of contact in both directions.

Nowadays the technological restrictions are gone as every software vendor can easily integrate services for messaging, surveys and feedback like Intercom or Zendesk (or build their own tools). Still, this potential is very often not used although it is crucial for the success of product managers.

Why? Because you need to:

  • Stay on top of the communication towards end-users: You cannot trust the customer to take over all end-user communication and only printing user guides nobody is reading anyway. Instead make sure customers and users both are always up-to-date about the capabilities of your product, get introduced to new features (via in-app guides, videos or other more engaging tutorials) and know about important events including downtimes. Stay transparent!
  • Understand your users: Hopefully you are allowed to track the behavior of your users and therefore already have a lot of quantitative data to learn from but sometimes you have to dig deeper to better understand the problems and daily routines of your users. One easy way to do this is to send out short (!) surveys to many end-users which help you to answer ambiguous questions and check hypothesis. Just make sure you don‘t do it too often (a large user base would allow you to randomly pick a small percentage of recipients for each survey) and make it as well quick and easy.
  • Get feedback: Always give end-users the ability to easily provide you feedback regarding your application and service. A simple button and an intuitive form will do the trick. If you make it simple enough you can learn a lot about existing stumbling blocks and missing functionality in your product. Don‘t be afraid of opening another channel for issue tracking, just reroute incoming feedbacks to your existing ticketing system and automatically add meta data like company, user, OS and browser info as well as screenshots because your support staff otherwise will have to ask for it anyway.
  • Track user satisfaction: If you have user satisfaction as one of your product management goals (which you should!) then you also need to track according KPIs continuously. Typically the NPS (=Net Promoter Score) works fine but you can also use other metrics to know how satisfied your users are with your product. This is so crucial, as it allows you to continuously improve your offering and measure the success of any new features or usability/design improvements you made.

Customer workshops & interviews

As a product manager you should take any opportunity to talk to customers and users in person in a 1:1 setting like joining sales pitches or attending regular customer success meetings. But this is not enough!

Meeting regularly with customers and end-users is key!

In order to build your product strategy and derive a compelling product roadmap you will want to get more detailed feedback from your most valued source: your customers or prospects and their users.

For this reason it makes sense to once create a list of customers that best fit your current target group and are approachable (this does not mean “friendly customers only”, because the most critical customers will help you the most…but they should‘t slam the door in front of you or be in a escalation process currently). Tell them that you want to talk to them on a regular basis and that you want to understand their challenges and needs better in order to build the best fitting product for them. You can also bait them by adding them to your beta program and therefore providing them features earlier as well as inviting them to your customer events as VIPs (think of a exclusive extra event one day before).

Now follow up with workshops where these customers can actively participate to solve strategical product related questions you have. There is a ton of workshop methodologies out there for any purpose from ideation to specification — make use of it!

In addition to this, ask for end-users that are willing to take part in short interview sessions. This is the perfect setting to gain insights into the daily job of your users, understand their real problems and motivation and detect flaws in your current solution. Make sure to create structured interview guidelines beforehand in order to not leave the interviews with only a bunch of new feature requests.

User panels for prototype & UX testing

Whenever you develop a new product, a new features or when you are planning a UX or design update it is vital to get continuous user feedback throughout the whole development process.

One way to manage this is to build a user panel representing your whole user base (think of different types of users and diverse environments they are working in) which gets access to mockups, prototypes and early version of the product you are working on and provides you structured feedback continuously.

I know it may be hard to actually get the buy-in of your customers and their employees as it will also cost their time but please keep pushing this as having this constant source of feedback will pay off in the end. Also if you already built up direct relationships with customers, it will become easier to get direct user access on top.

Also make sure you change the composition of your panel regularly in order to not get on the people‘s nerves too much and also incentivize them somehow for their time spent.

Online community

You cannot talk to all your customers personally right? So why not provide the means for product related exchange to all you customers. Establishing an online community for non-urgent product related questions and feature requests provides you a great channel, filtering common trends and problems. You can even make this explicit and give users the chance to vote on feature requests and ideas which provides you an even better indication if a certain improvement could actually be a worthwile investment.

To make this successful you have to make sure that:

  • Someone is moderating this community. Peer feedback and discussions are great but the users need to feel the presence of the software vendor who takes them serious.
  • You keep your promises. If you provide the ability to raise ideas for new features or improvements you also have to follow up on this and implement at least the most important ones in a regular interval.

Both actions will cost time and resources but it will reward you with lots of feedback and engaged users.

Customer advisory board

Last but not least you could even further leverage the relationships with your most insightful customers by bringing them together on site and establish a “customer advisory board”.

Fill your empty meeting rooms with customer representatives and gain relevant insights for your product strategy.

In this group of people you gather contact people from the most relevant customers you have and meet with them in regular intervals. This is exactly the right forum to challenge your product strategy and high-level roadmap, so make sure the right people (also in terms of hierarchy level and decision making) are there, willing to discuss with you on a strategic level.

There is no better argument for a substantial product investment as a buy-in from this group of people if you need to fight for your plans in front of your own management.

To make those customer advisory board meetings successful, make sure the customers feel welcomed and are also able to benefit from through new insights and relevant exchange with their peers from other companies. Therefore give them enough space to talk with each other. Also don’t make the mistake of filling the whole day with only your input. Although you definitely need to run the show and provide the major agenda points, in the end of the day you need the customers to open up and share their perspectives.

I hope that I could provide you some relevant input and new ideas to get more direct feedback from customers and end-users working with your product.
Do you have additional ideas? If yes, please feel free and share them with me in the comments!