Products Chasing Customers
Ryan Frederick | September 9th, 2021
Most products chase customers.
This is one of the reasons I don’t like Product Market Fit and prefer Customer Product Fit. I write about Customer Product Fit in my book The Founder’s Manual. Markets don’t buy products, customers do. If you create a product for market fit, you will likely end up chasing customers as a result.
Product teams create products that chase customers because they are creating these products in a vacuum without constant, intimate involvement with customers. Product teams that create products based mostly on what they know about a problem and the customer’s existence with the problem decrease the likelihood of a product’s success and increase the likelihood of a product chasing customers once Version 1 is available. This can also happen if they are assuming they know the customer processes around the problem, the customer belief of the problem, and the customers value of potential solutions to the problem.
Product teams who create products that chase customers believe they know what customers want, believe they understand the problem, and believe they know what to create. This just isn’t true. Without having customers at the table throughout the product creation process, the product teams are making decisions and creating based on shallow or incorrect assumptions about the problem, what the product should do, and how the product should do it.
Doesn’t Agile assist in overcoming this – you might ask? In theory yes, but in practicality no. Many companies that have adopted the Agile methodology are still bad at creating valuable and successful products. This is true even when someone is representing the customer as part of an Agile team. One person cannot, and should not, be put in a position to represent all customers/users of a product. It is too much pressure, and it would be impossible for one person to represent the entirety of the problem and potential solutions. Additionally, one person is, by nature, biased and viewing the problem and product through their own filters. Having a single person represent all customers doesn’t change the dynamic of a product team creating a product in vacuum, it reinforces it. It might actually be worse than having no one representing customers in some cases because it creates a crutch and false belief for those creating the product. The product team now believes the customer has been represented and their decisions and actions around the product will be endorsed and justified, when in actuality this isn’t the case. Agile hasn’t made most companies better at creating products because Agile hasn’t forced the companies and their product teams to create products intimately with customers.
Products that aren’t created intimately with customers just end up chasing them whether the product is for internal use or external commercialization. How many internal software products at companies are loved by the internal customers of those products? Not many. The internal chasing of customers forcing them to learn and use a product that doesn’t actually solve their problem. And one that occasionally creates workflow and process efficiencies instead of removing them.
Products that are chasing the external customers means there will be more time and money spent on marketing to figure out the best messaging and positioning of the product. This leads to longer sales cycles, lower prices, more difficult customer onboarding, and shorter customer retention. Yuck all the way around. If marketing is having trouble figuring out how to position a product to potential customers, sales is having a hard time demo’ing and selling licenses, and customer success can’t keep customers, let alone keep them happy, the product is not likely to succeed. Not even a little.
There is a better way.
So how do product teams prevent creating a product that is going to chase customers? They get a cross section of customers or potential customers at the table throughout the creation process. And when I say throughout the creation process, I mean from the moment a decision has been made you have a problem that requires a deeper understanding to see if anything should or can be done to solve it through a digital product. Defining and understanding a problem at an expert level with customers is the first step in the product creation process - or at least should be. Understanding the problem to the deepest possible level is the most important aspect of getting to the best solution and product.
Product teams should form formal customer advisory boards if they truly want to create customer centric products that are loved and used by internal or external customers. Customer advisory boards establish a framework for intimate communication and collaboration with customers throughout a product’s creation. They force product teams to create in front of, and more importantly with, customers.
If companies don’t want to be giving lip service while saying they are customer centric, then they need to start forming and executing customer advisory boards. Companies, even many startups, have boards to help them with oversight and strategic direction, yet most companies don’t and never have had a formal customer advisory board. Startups in particular should have customer advisory board that is just as active if not more than the company’s overall board of directors.
The best way to avoid creating a product that will just end up chasing customers is to create the product WITH customers as part of a customer advisory board. If customers helped to define the problem and create the solution, they just might be more likely to want to have and use the product. Just sayin’.