What differentiates a mediocre product manager from a great product manager? Is it technical acumen? Superior planning and roadmapping skills? The answer may (or may not) surprise you. What separates a decent PM from a great one is their ability to empathize with the customer. 

Even if a PM is aware of this fact on an intellectual level, putting it into practice is harder than it seems. The irony is that most product managers miss this important first step. Consequently, they never cross the chasm and will keep building poor products that their customers do not really want. In the next few paragraphs, I’ll talk about three tactics that put customers top-of-mind, helping product managers bridge the gap between customer needs and actual, high-value features within the product. 

Tactic No. 1: Customer visits for existing features

Customer visits are critical, especially for uncovering how customers use existing features and products. During a visit, a product manager can observe first-hand how customers interact with the product. These visits allow PMs to gather important insights like the emotions users feel when interacting with the product (frustration, satisfaction, happiness, etc.), ease of use of the product, and what drives feature adoption.

A face-to-face discussion with the actual stakeholders gives product managers a better perspective on what users really want. When they go back to the drawing board, this clarity of requirements lets them carve out use cases and user stories that lead to customer delight. Customer visits are an amazing avenue to assess what customers know and what they don’t. In addition, the information gathered during these visits can help increase user adoption of existing features and reduce churn.

Plus, these visits can reveal some astounding and unexpected insights. For example, one product manager I knew at a leading financial planning organization bragged constantly about his product’s amazing user experience and its automate flow. During a customer visit, however, he was astonished to find users were maintaining a cheatsheet of steps they had to perform to achieve the desired result. So much for automated and easy-to-use UX. 

Tactic No. 2: Conferences for new features

Conferences are a great place to impress one’s customers with new features. A live demo can help customers and prospects engage with the product. After the demo, the feedback a product manager can receive through in-person discussions with those same customers and prospects can turn out to be extremely valuable.

There’s a reason why techniques like design thinking propose a continuous feedback loop. Conferences can act as an important backchannel to gain such feedback. And it’s helpful to see a customer’s reaction to a new product feature with your own eyes. Early feedback from demos can help increase user adoption of new features and even let the product team achieve a high NPS right from Day 0 of the launch.

For example, during one popular legal conference, a product manager from a leading SaaS-based legal case management solution provider demoed their artificial intelligence (AI)/RPA-based use case to some leading law firms. Not only did the product manager get insights into which features of the product need RPA, but they were able to stand out against the competition, as they offered a forward-looking, almost futuristic solution never seen before in the industry.

Tactic No. 3: Customer advisory boards

A customer advisory board can be another highly useful conduit for obtaining honest feedback and advice from trusted and active customers. These customers are some of the key stakeholders who have been by the company’s side throughout the org’s ups and downs. They are true champions of the product’s value proposition. Typically, they tie their success to the success of the product. Thus, setting up a customer advisory board and meeting with them regularly can help take the product to the next level. Their honest and regular feedback can lead to better user experience and high NPS.

To summarize, empathy with the customer is what separates a successful PM from a merely “effective” one. To keep the customer at the forefront of the product team’s strategy, remember the “three Cs:” customer visits, conferences for new features, and customer advisory boards. All three are powerful tactics for building a product empathetically and fostering a strong “customer first” mindset!

About the Author

Viraj is an expert product manager and a thought leader in go-to-market, digital transformation, and business strategy. He has successfully launched world-class cloud/SaaS and data analytics platforms and products at leading startups and enterprises.