(54) Some key insights from managing a customer council

As I mentioned in a previous post, my experience with customer council began in my previous organization, Autodesk. However, it is in my current organisation that I have been more deeply engaged in customer conversations. It’s been only a couple of months now with the setting up of the council but there is already a lot I have observed and learnt that I would like to share in this post.

I have also realized I am spending inordinately longer amount of time talking to these customers everyday — about 20–25% of my time. And it is worth the time because real product value creation happens through these immersive conversations. This is the process of product discovery and I believe is the most valuable contribution of a product manager.

Here are the key lessons I have learnt all this while:

Understanding context

As Jared Spool often says, poor user experiences inevitably comes from poorly informed design teams. Design happens in context. And research is simply understanding that context.

Most times solving a problem seems straight forward but often they are not. The actual customer scenarios and their actual workflow is often difficult to imagine. When we share designs and mockup with my customers in the council, they throw such insights and contexts that would not have been possible for us to know otherwise. The most satisfying moments for me are the ones when a customer presents a new insight which I had never imagined before. These are the unknown unknowns.

“There are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns — that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns — there are things we do not know we don’t know.” — Donald Rumsfeld, Former US Secretary of Defence

This is exactly why Jobs Stories are becoming more popular than User Stories. Because job stories provide the context.

User Story:

Job Story

Customers are the product and domain experts

No matter how deep is your domain expertise, you can never match up-to the collective product and domain knowledge of your customers. Your customers use your product everyday. They would have also used your competitor’s product before moving to your product. Hence, they have wider context and more exhaustive knowledge. Don’t be ashamed to admit your ignorance to them. Ask dumb questions and leverage their knowledge for making right product decisions. Gather their opinions on where the market is going, or what they are anticipating in the competitive landscape.

Use the council in all phases of product development

We have been able to use council’s expertise in all phases of product development, right from opportunity discovery to deciding upon an icon.

We have also been able to take references from happy participants and use their quotations in our marketing campaigns when a feature is released.

Set Clear Objectives and Expectations for the posts

Be clear about what you intend to do with the feedback from a Customer Advisory Board. Let participants know how it will be used and whether it will get special weight during the prioritization process (it will, whether consciously or unconsciously). Also let them know if Sales and Marketing will have access to their feedback, and whether it will be anonymous or identified. And finally, close the loop.

Seek to understand problems but do not discourage solutions

I have often seen that some passionate participants send us mockups and prototypes in response to our mockups. I am thrilled when I receive them. It only goes to show their passion and engagement. Even though the primary goal of my engagement is to understand customers’ real jobs and their problems, I do not discourage when they provide solutions. Ofcourse, I do not take their solutions on face value but it does help to understand their context and motivations behind their design idea.

Nurture and engage with passionate and active participants

It’s your responsibility to keep the energy and enthusiasm of your most active and engaged participants. Always answer to their questions and close the loop for every discussion. Also, thank them profusely for their participation and insights.

Show them regularly how their feedback has influenced your designs and product plans. I always show them the final designs that were influenced based on the council’s feedback. It’s very important they see their feedback is being acted upon seriously. It’s a relationship, and works best when reciprocal. Otherwise, you’ll find very few takers for subsequent customer council programs, and this forum will gradually turn into a dead end.

Be radically transparent

I have tried to be very open and transparent to these customers. I provide them real reasons why a certain feature they have been requesting cannot be built. I show them our conflicting priorities and rationale behind our decisions. You gain a lot of their trust and loyalty when you are radically transparent with them.

Be patient with disgruntled participants

I have had occasions when certain participant have been livid and angry. A certain customer found the level of communication too mundane and tactical to be worthy of his time. This was the time when we were finishing a release and wanted some help on making the right icon choices for our UI. I had to attend to him personally explain that the engagement in the council varied from discussing the smallest UI elements to larger product roadmaps topics and every topic plays a role in the success of the product. He understood my rationale and promised a more proactive role in the future.

Avoid arguments on statistical significance

While presenting insights to your team or stakeholders, you will often be asked about quantitative proofs. But it is your responsibility to educate your team and stakeholders that the insights are qualitative and exploratory in nature. Avoid arguments about statistical significance; you will not win. Instead, keep the focus on gathering useful insights.



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Ravi Kumar.

Ravi Kumar.


Building nextgen real estate platform at PriceHubble & podcaster at productlessons.com. I blog about products, business around products, and growth strategies.