Dear Product Managers: Revere the Front Lines

On my first day as an intern at a GORE-TEX plant, I stepped onto the manufacturing floor with my engineering mentor.

“See all those offices in the corner?” she asked. “That’s where the senior managers with fancy diplomas are.”

OK.

“If you wanna know how things work, don’t ask them. Ask the operators working on the line.”

Oh?

“The line operators know more than anyone. They actually touch the product. They can tell you if a machine sounds different today, or if the glue is a different viscosity. Some of them have been doing this longer than you’ve been alive. Go to them first.”

My job that summer was to solve manufacturing defects (AKA “bugs”). Thanks to my mentor’s advice, I spent my time on the factory floor talking to the line operators and taking notes.

When I had a solution, I would go back to the operators and get their help trying it out. They’d help me slate my experiments in between batches. They’d give me their opinions.

I noticed the most passionate and effective process engineers had great relationships with the line operators. Operators may not have had as many framed diplomas, but at GORE-TEX they got their respect.

Fast forward to my tech career.

In the tech industry, engineering is royalty. People who work with engineers (product, design, data science) get to enjoy similar stature and power.

Support, sales, customer success, account executives, trust and safety, events, community — sorry, who?

The “tech” side of the organization typically sees these functions as “others.” They’re here as a launch plan checkbox, a means to an end, and far more replaceable than “us.”

In tech, customer-facing teams aren’t treated as real partners. That’s a shame, both from a we’re-all-human-and-life-is-short sense, and from a business and product management these-people-have-a-lot-to-share sense.

People on the front lines are full of insights

The people in our organizations that work directly with our customers have the most raw data of anyone else. That’s an invaluable resource for you — but only if you walk over and talk to them.

The front lines are natural user researchers in their own way. Of course, each role is going to have a specific focus to their knowledge. Each team will have its own bias and worldview. But damn, put together, they have a lot to tell us.

Get to know the strengths of each team and what colors their perspective. In what context do they interact with customers? What customers do they usually talk to, and who don’t they talk to?

For example, support might talk to a wide variety of customer types, but only over written communication, and usually only when things have gone wrong. Sales might get to have extensive, soul-searching conversations, but only for a certain market segment.

Raw experience builds strong intuition. Not crystal-ball certainty, but intuition well-worth heeding.

Jeff Bezos urges us to “resist proxies,” and he’s right. There’s no replacement for talking to customers. That said, customer-facing teams can teach you what questions to ask — and answers that customers won’t articulate.

via Wikimedia commons

Customer facing teams are part of your product

People on the front lines are as much a part of the value to customers as the features themselves (whether customers talk to them, see them, or consciously know it).

When defining problems, you’ll want their insights. When brainstorming, you’ll want their creativity.

When planning a solution, you’ll want their feedback and sanity-checks. You’ll want to be aware of how a decision (or lack thereof) might impact their teams.

When it comes to QA, they know how to break the product better than any PM or engineer.

When trying something out live, you’ll need their excitement and help in supporting it, in explaining it, and in selling it.

Customer facing teams are as much a part of the process as writing the code.

Make it an instinct

It’s not enough to feel warm fuzzies as you read this blog post. It’s not about being best buds and having beers after work. It’s about listening and building credibility. You have to put in the time to listen.

This starts by asking for someone’s thoughts. And then listening. Like, actually listening. Now do that at dozens more junctures, and you’ll have started to build a habit.

An inner voice will automatically ask “I wonder what the account executives would say about this” or “I wonder if the content moderation team could help narrow down some of these ideas.”

You certainly don’t have to do everything someone says. After all, your role sits in the middle of all the constraints and inputs. Customer-facing teams represent one part of a panoramic picture.

You do need to appreciate their day-to-day, and where they’re coming from. You do need to engage with what they have to say, as much as you would for a data scientist, user researcher, or designer. (And…definitely more than a high-ranking person with an opinion.)

The feedback doesn’t need to be obeyed. The people do deserve to be heard.

Walk the walk

Across companies, my customer-facing counterparts are surprised when PMs treat them as intelligent, knowledgeable stakeholders with insights to share.

Here’s how to be the exception:

  1. When you onboard to a new company, or start a new project interview separate customer facing teammates and functions. Listen and take notes. (This may freak some of them out as they may not be used to being genuinely listened to.)
  2. Create regular, open-ended channels for insights such as a bi-weekly or monthly session with customer-facing leads to surface insights or issues. This can be one big session or broken up into ownership areas, whichever makes sense.
  3. Make them a part of your team. If you share an objective, put the org chart aside. Whether that’s Trust & Safety with a content moderation product team, or sales together with a growth team — you should work as closely together as you would with engineering or design.
  4. Turn their feedback into action. Not all the time, not everything, but without showing action you won’t have much credibility.

Thanks to that summer in the GORE-TEX factory, I realized that customer-facing teams as a “real” source of knowledge and insights within an org. They have talked to more customers than you have, have more ideas than you do, and have more street smarts than you do. Listen to them as you would an on-staff expert.

Be the exception, and revere them.