From “Best Enemies” to Allies: How CS can Share Customer Feedback so that Product Actually Listens
“CS and Product are often either the worst friends or the best enemies.”
That’s how one Customer Success leader from Google characterized the relationship we often see between Product and Customer Success teams in a recent conversation.
Even though Product and Customer Success have the same goals—build something remarkable that everyone loves—they often butt heads.
The tension comes from having different perspectives. CS listens to customers all day. They have a very sophisticated understanding of what customers want. Product’s looking at it from a higher level. Of course they care about customer feedback, but they have to make product decisions based on a number of other factors, too.
To make a truly remarkable product, CS and Product have to be allies (and feel like it).
How can you transform “frenemyship” into allyship?
Here’s advice from Wayne McCulloch, a former VP of Customer Success at Google and the current Chief Customer Officer at WalkMe, on how to create a constructive relationship between Product and CS. These are the 4 strategies he and other leaders use to share customer data in a way that works for Product.
Strategy 1: Provide hard customer data
Customer Success can be more effective at communicating customer needs when they present the right kind of evidence.
The right kind of evidence is not customer anecdotes.
Yes, as a CS person, you’ve been speaking to your customers regularly and you’ve heard in detail about what they want. Those anecdotes are readily available to you and they often feel very persuasive.
But Product isn’t as interested in anecdotes as they are in hard data.
It’s actually not prudent to prioritize features based only on anecdotal evidence. Product knows that a persuasive story of an individual customer who is different from most of your customers could convince you to build the wrong thing.
Instead, Product wants to know how many customers want a given feature, which customers want a feature, and how much total revenue those customers pay.
They want numbers.
They also want verbatims. Verbatim feedback helps them understand the underlying problem a customer is having and helps serve as a skeleton set of product requirements. Customer verbatims are critical for Product Managers to make responsible product decisions.
Takeaway: CS will be more successful in communicating customer needs if they can bundle up customer feedback and verbatims into concrete numbers. (Hint: this is exactly what we created Savio to do).
Strategy 2: Frame customer feedback as user stories
“The important thing to remember with feature requests is that they should not be taken at face value. They indicate a problem that is yet to be solved and the customer's attempt to find a solution. There is nothing quite as powerful as a good user story, that enables creators of the product to see the world through their customers’ eyes.” — Kristina Symes, Director, Product Development and Marketing @ GIDEON Informatics
One of Product’s biggest challenges is to understand customer problems. They’re often hesitant to take customer requests at face value because customers are not always good at knowing what they need.
You’ve probably heard Henry Ford’s overused saw:
“If I'd asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me, 'A faster horse!'”
It’s an important lesson (even if it's a bit cliche): Customers are experts in the problems they have, but they’re not always good at understanding or proposing the best solutions.
Here’s a more modern example given by McCulloch:
There was a section of our business that created BI software. One of their customers requested a larger font in the app. CS passed that request on to their Product team, but Product rejected it. Their designers pointed out the many design reasons that a larger font would cause other problems in the tool.
Eventually, CS framed the request as a user story. They explained that the customer was a call center and used the intelligence tool to track metrics of their employees. They projected the data on a wall of TV screens on one side of the call center. But the screens were far away from some of the employees, and so those employees couldn’t see the metrics. The customer asked for a larger font to make the tool more visible to employees sitting at a distance.
Product’s said, “Oh, they don’t need a larger font—they need a TV mode!” So Product built a feature to optimally display the data on TV screens. Once they understood the underlying problem, they were able to create a better solution than the customer proposed.
Sharing customer feedback as user stories helps Product understand the core problem their customers have so that it can be solved in the most effective way.
Sometimes customers propose the solutions they want to see, but those solutions aren’t actually ideal. It’s better for Product to understand the customer problem itself so that they can choose the best solution. (Incidentally, this is why Savio’s feedback field is called “Customer Problem”—to prompt submitters to get to the problem customers are facing, not just their proposed solution.)
Takeaway: Framing customer feedback as user stories—which includes the problem customers are facing—is more useful to Product and will help them more effectively use customer feedback to inform product decisions.
Strategy 3: Share feedback on a regular schedule, not ad-hoc
I know: more meetings.
Sorry Dwight, you really do need a synchronous meeting for sharing customer feedback.
The fact is that it’s much easier for Product to understand customer needs when they hear them regularly and systematically. Providing feedback in an ad hoc way doesn’t help them get a full picture of the problems customers are facing.
To do that, establish a regular cadence for meetings where product and CS review customer feedback together.
The exact cadence can depend on your teams and their preferences. At Savio, we literally sell customer feedback tracking software, so using customer feedback is central to how we build software. That means our Product leaders are invested in customer feedback and review feedback often.
It’s fine if your team is different. But I would suggest that CS share feedback with Product at least at the same cadence as your Product meetings—perhaps even during the product meeting.
(In fact, we suggest that our customers use Savio software to run their product meeting.)
Read more: How to run your product meeting using Savio
However you choose to do it, make sure you share your customer feedback in a regular, systematic way. Having consistent meetings will help Product see overall trends in customer feedback so that they can understand the types of problems your customers are having.
Takeaway: Schedule meetings to share your customer feedback with Product at a regular cadence.
Strategy 4: Lead with a vision of becoming allies
The last thing I heard in my conversation with McCulloch was about how to approach the relationship between CS and Product. The most important step to establishing effective communication between the two teams is to actually see yourself as a partner or an ally of the other team.
Ya. Avoid this.
I know, that doesn’t feel like a very concrete strategy—it’s a bit fluffy. But how you frame or approach your relationship with the other team really can affect how you work together. Going into interactions with Product with a partnership mindset is beneficial and helps create the necessary foundation for Product to listen to CS.
Make partnership and a shared vision the foundation of your relationship with the Product team.
Some concrete strategies you can use to do this include:
Actually believe you can be allies rather than frenemies.
Be helpful. If you’re in CS, do things that make life easier for Product. As Zig Ziglar once said, “You can have everything in life that you want if you just give enough other people what they want.” (Hat tip to Hiten Shah for driving this home in his email signature.)
If you’re in CS, respect the job Product has to do and factors they’re thinking about besides customer feedback. If you’re in Product, respect the job CS has to do and how much they know about the customer. In both cases, you'll get respect back and build bridges. Bonus: talk to your colleagues in Product (or CS) about the pressures they face. Empathy and understanding will help you be a better partner to each other.
And then do all the usual social stuff with your colleagues, too—coffee hangout, rope courses, improv night, trust falls, etc.
Takeaway: Be intentional about fostering a positive personal relationship with your CS and Product colleagues. Re-frame the relationship as one of collaborative partners.
How to get the right customer feedback on your product roadmap
Customer Success and Products have the same goals. But that doesn’t mean the relationship is always smooth.
We know that customer-centric businesses are more successful. When companies use customer feedback to inform their product roadmap, they increase loyalty, enhance market fit, and reduce churn.
Customer Success talks to customers all day—they know what customers want. That’s why CS should help influence more of the product roadmap. But CS doesn’t know everything. Product is thinking about a bunch of other Roadmap considerations that are also very important.
CS can be better customer advocates by making sure that they communicate with Product in a way that will be effective.
Do those things and you’ll move from "best enemies" to "allies in crushing churn."
Last Updated: 11-12-2021
Kareem is a co-founder at Savio. He's been prioritizing customer feedback professionally since 2001. He likes tea and tea snacks, and dislikes refraining from eating lots of tea snacks.