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Customers Force Focus

Ryan Frederick | July 29th, 2021

I’m a huge fan of Customer Advisory Boards to help guide a product. There are the obvious reasons for not creating a product in a vacuum and validating iteratively with customers, but the value of a customer advisory board goes much deeper than that.

When products get created with a lack of customer input the product creators become undisciplined, biased, and ego-driven. The product creators think they know best and that they have the understanding needed to create a product that customers will use and value. To which they are almost always wrong.

One of the best attributes of the best product people and teams is humility. They don’t assume they know what the best solution is and better yet, they don’t assume they even know what the best questions are to be asking to understand the problem and to get to the best solution. Implementing and executing a customer advisory board around a new product encourages a humble perspective by product teams which fosters a willingness to be open-minded to do what is right, not necessarily to be right. Customers keep us honest and unbiased. Customers keep us from falling in love with our own version of the problem and the solution to solve it. Creating a product with customers at the table protects us from ourselves.

The best way to ensure a product has at least some modicum of a chance at success is to create the product alongside customers. This isn’t new or an epiphany, but it still rarely happens to the level it should. Why? Because most people, including product people, are undisciplined. Most product people would prefer to create based on what they know or more accurately believe, then to do it based on what others (customers) actually know. This sounds crazy, right? But think about it - when is the last time you or a product team you’ve been a part of actually formed a formal customer advisory board to help inform the creation of the product in a regimented, scientific way? Your response here is probably ‘never’.

Creating a product with customers actively participating forces product creators to be more disciplined and scientific. Product creators are compelled to leave their biases behind or be forced to defend and confront them. They are forced to document and consider customer perspectives around the problem, potential solutions, and the friction between a customer’s current state and the implementation of a new solution. Product creation with customers actively and iteratively involved pushes the product creators to conduct a deeper problem definition and understanding which is a significant part of creating a valuable solution. Customers take the guesswork out of what problem is being solved, why it need to be solved, and what the options are for solving it.

Having a customer advisory board turns creatives, which is what most product creators are, into scientists. Customers expect logic and rationale behind questions and decisions. A logical approach to solving a problem is a scientific approach. Form a hypothesis and then gather information and insights to run experiments to prove or disprove the hypothesis. This has nothing to do with being right and everything to do with finding out what is right. These are very different versions of right. Scientists don’t need to be proven right to be successful and neither should product creators.

The opposite of a scientific approach is winging it. Having customers join you in creating a product keeps you from winging it. When product creators don’t engage with customers throughout the product creation process, they are essentially saying that they are okay basing the product on what they know and then chasing customers to persuade them that they were right. Creating a product with customers in a more scientific manner allows a product team to attract customers rather than to have to chase them when the product is available. This is a major difference. This is the difference between Product Market Fit and Customer Product Fit. I write about Customer Product Fit in my book The Founder’s Manual. Markets don’t buy products, customers do. You can have market fit and not have customer fit if you are not spending enough time with customers.

It is important to acknowledge that there are significant differences in creating a B2B product and B2C product. It is also more challenging to form and execute a customer advisory board with consumers than with professionals, but not impossible. Most attempts at forming and executing a customer advisory board look like focus groups, not customer advisory boards with consumers. Consumer focus groups probably work well when rolling out a new detergent or air freshener, but not for software products. Software products need customers involved throughout the process for customers to be able to provide meaningful input from problem definition to friction around the user experience. Sure, a consumer product like detergent might go through several rounds of testing to get the packaging and the detergent just right, but these rounds over a product’s evolution don’t compare to the macro and micro iterations a software product goes through. A physical product like a bottle of detergent has a final state. Software products only have what today’s version is and does. Software products are living ever evolving products, most physical products are not. Therefore, physical products like detergent can get away with focus groups as a way of engaging and validating with consumers. It is easier for physical product creators to operate scientifically than for software product creators. This is not to let software product creators off the hook. Software product creators will use the fast moving and iterative nature of creating software products to defend not being able to formally engage with customers and to not approach the process scientifically. These are not reasons, they are excuses.

Implementing a customer advisory board (some members can be and likely should be prospective customers of the product as well) has formality and expectations attached to it. And that’s good. The formality of engaging, validating, and iterating with customers helps product creators to manage themselves and the process more formally which increases the chance of a product being valued and used by the customers as part of the advisory board and beyond.