How to obtain useful feedback from your customers

As you are building your product roadmap, you want to ensure that you have as much insight as possible into your customers’ needs. And not just their current needs – you also need to anticipate what types of challenges will be on the horizon for them. After all, customer success is the be all and end all, and that’s why we place so much value on our customers’ input, of which there is no shortage, luckily. The key is to extract the most useful feedback and to act on it. Here are some thoughts on how to do that. 

Provide multiple feedback channels

In order to get useful feedback, you start by getting feedback in the first place. Make it easy for your customers to voice their opinion and to solicit their ideas, and accommodate each individual’s preferences with regard to communication. Some people prefer written communication, others may provide input in passing as they’re interacting with your team, while others might be more than happy to have dedicated feedback sessions with you. For instance, we have an Idea Portal, where customers can submit their feature requests and vote on ideas. In addition, all customer-facing team members, such as Support, Services, Training, and Customer Success, write down feedback that they’ve received and submit it to Productboard, which is where we house and process all input and plan out our roadmap. Furthermore, our Head of Customer Success and I have many, many feedback sessions with our customers throughout the year. Finally, we’ve hosted focus groups during our user conferences. Be sure to identify those customers who are willing to answer follow-up questions, and respect their time and their communication preferences for follow-ups as well. 

Focus on the outcome, not the specific feature 

Henry Ford once famously stated “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Don’t get me wrong – our customers have approached us with many amazing ideas for new features. However, in order to make sure that we get the most useful feedback, we always try to focus on the desired outcome rather than a feature. We want to have a clear understanding of what our customers are looking to accomplish so that we can find the best possible solution for them, and we certainly don’t just want to copy something that a competitor is doing. In order to innovate, always focus on the desired result, not the functionality. 

Ensure diversity of feedback providers

Some customers are easier to get ahold of than others, which is why I’ve seen companies only receive feedback from the same core group of champions – a dangerous mindset! Instead, make every effort possible to solicit input from a broad variety of clients, including those who tend to be quiet. Another pitfall is to only reach out to your main contact at an organization. It’s simply not sufficient, for example, to only talk to a technical user(s) and not the non-technical end users, or to focus on the needs of the IT department when Marketing and Communication departments are the primary users of your product. Connecting with multiple people at each organization takes a lot of effort, but it’s absolutely mandatory if you want to get the most useful feedback in order to deliver the best products.

Crank out those prototypes

Once you’ve decided to move forward with new functionality, continue communicating with your customers (and your internal stakeholders). Since most of them are visual, you can increase your chances of getting actionable and quality feedback if you can show them prototypes. One word of caution: don’t try to perfect the prototype. It doesn’t have to look pretty, and it doesn’t have to include everything that a feature could possibly do. With prototypes, speed is most important. When sharing them with stakeholders, explain what you’re looking to get out of the feedback. In most cases, it likely boils down to “would you use this?”, “what would be the impact of this feature on you and/or your users?”, and perhaps “would you pay for this?”, rather than “Should this button be on the upper left?”. 

Give thanks and credit

In order to obtain a continuous stream of inspired feedback, make sure that your customers know that you not just value their opinion, but that you are putting your money where your mouth is by actually acting on the feedback that you receive. Share with them the impact that they’re having. For instance, when you present your roadmap, mention the number of votes that a certain piece of functionality had received on the Idea Exchange. Give shout-outs to customers who initiated the exploration of a specific feature. Most importantly, thank your customers for their thoughtfulness, their time, and their willingness to collaborate with you in order to help you create the optimal solutions for them. 

While not every idea will should make it into your roadmap, it is vital to collect as much feedback as you can, to ask lots of questions, and to focus on desired outcomes. The better a partner you are to your customers, the easier this process will be.

What about you? How do you get the most useful feedback from your customers?

The be-all and end-all: Customer Success

As I mentioned before, staying connected to your customers and putting their needs at the forefront should be your top priorities. By doing so, you enable yourself to reduce customer churn, to give your team members focus and a sense of purpose, and ultimately, to grow your company in meaningful ways. Let’s take a look at some of the things you can do in order to ensure that customer success is front and center at all times.

Customer success as a department

Consider implementing a Customer Success department, even if you just start out with one person. Client advocates and heads of customer success typically serve as the first point of contact for your customers. They are trusted advisors whose mission it is to understand the needs of your customers, to connect them with the right people in your company, and to ensure that each client is optimally positioned to achieve the goals that they set out for themselves. It’s also important to point out that your customer success team plants multiple roots at an organization. It’s not enough to keep the main product champion happy. Be sure that your success team has contacts with end users and other stakeholders, such as the executive level.

Customer success metrics

One of the most important things to keep in mind is that success means something different to everyone. Therefore, you can’t apply the same success metrics to all of your customers. Be sure that your success team helps your customers clearly identify what success looks like to them. Is it user adoption of the product? Impact on revenue? Time savings per use case? Try to capture in writing how each customer defines success when it comes to partnering with you. Next, let the customer know both your role and theirs in making success happen. Alignment is key, not just in the first stages of the customer’s experience, but throughout. That’s why success metrics should be a focal point in every check-in call and feedback session that your success team conducts with your customers.

Customer success centric roadmap

Managing your product roadmap is no small feat. If you’re not already conducting focus groups, one on one feedback sessions, and monitoring an idea exchange, I’d highly recommend that you start today. Provide your customers a multitude of ways to submit their ideas and pain points. And, most importantly, develop a method to process each item. At Hannon Hill, we use Productboard to log each and every suggestion. We then follow up with the submitter if necessary, categorize and tag the ideas, and measure impact and complexity. One of the key considerations when evaluating those ideas is to what extent each improvement of feature will help customers achieve their goals. That’s why we often ask the individuals who submit certain suggestions what it is that they’re trying to accomplish, rather than focusing immediately on on the “how” and talk about specific features.

Share success stories

As I’ve pointed out before when discussing professional services, customer experience is everything. Whenever a customer has gone live with your product for the first time, or has accomplished, follow up with them to find out how they rate the success of the project. Convey the feedback to your entire team, and, upon approval from the client, share the story externally, with a quick social post, a customer spotlight on your website, or even by giving them an award at your user conference.

Finally, I’d like to mention that customer service is not the same as customer success. Customer service is everything you do to make sure that your clients feel well taken care of and understood. Customer success is the degree to which your clients are able to achieve their goals thanks to your product and/or services.

What about you? How do you ensure that customer success is front and center at your organization?


Professional Services: Customer experience is everything

Your Professional Services Team can make or break your relationship with your customers. Getting new clients up and running quickly and smoothly is critical for maximizing product adoption. There are many things that a Services Manager can do in order to ensure that customers are not just getting their money’s worth, but feel comfortable every step of the way, and are delighted with the outcomes of their projects. Let’s take a look.

Have the right people on the bus

Having the right people on your team is the number one prerequisite for client happiness. Since company culture is how people feel when interacting with someone in your company, be sure to hire based on culture fit and make company values an integral part of your quarterly check-ins with your staff. In addition, continue to coach your team members on how to communicate with customers, especially in stressful situations. You want to get to a point where you can blindly trust your team to do the right thing and to conduct themselves in a way that makes the customer feel exceptionally well taken care of.

Introduce yourself to new clients

Regardless of whether a new client has purchased services, always introduce yourself to them. Make sure they have your email address and your phone number and that they understand how you can help them. Ask questions about their goals, timelines, stakeholders, and, most importantly, any fears or concerns that they may have, and talk about clients who were in similar circumstances and succeeded with their project.

Project kickoff calls

When a client has purchased professional services from you, schedule a kickoff call. This is a good opportunity to introduce some of the team members who will be working on the project and to get to know the key personnel on the client’s side. If other vendors or consultants are engaged in the project as well, have them join the call if your client is okay with it. One of the main objectives of the call is to establish processes and cadences. Explain to the client how you perform requirements gathering, what types of status updates you will provide (and how often), how your QA process works, and what deliverables you need from the client or the contractor. Follow up with an email that summarizes what was discussed.

Set expectations

False expectations are one of the most common reasons for project failure and customer dissatisfaction. Therefore, be as specific as possible in every interaction with your client and spell out what they can expect from you, and what you expect from them in return. This does not just apply to deliverables, but also to communication channels and response times. Similarly, when preparing a Statement of Work (SOW), outline the scope of the project as precisely as possible, but don’t stop there. If you can think of any false assumptions that the client could make, list them out in order to avoid misunderstandings.

Be generous with your quality guarantee period

Your client needs to have the reassurance that you will be there for them after the project has been completed. Therefore, give your customers a generous amount of time to do their own post-implementation QA. No matter how anxious they are to start testing, chances are that yours is not the only project on their plate.

Walk through the SOW

Don’t just sent out a SOW and put all of the responsibility on the customer. You don’t know their level of experience when it comes to these types of projects. You also don’t know how detail oriented they are, so you really want to make sure that you have a screen-sharing session with them to go through every aspect of the SOW. Send the document ahead of time, so that they have the opportunity to digest and annotate everything and to ask questions. As you go through the SOW with the customer, make sure that you explain all assumptions and clarify anything that might involve a decision by them. After the meeting, update the SOW to include what was discussed. When it comes to project success, there’s no such thing as over-communicating.

Track estimated versus actual hours

One of the best things you can do for your customers and for your own team is to become a master of accurately estimating the hours involved in completing a project. Therefore, you have to continuously track the quoted hours for each project and compare them to the actual hours. Granted, your team members will initially not be excited to track their time, so be sure to explain to them why it’s important. You really want to nail your estimates, so that you get compensated fairly for the work you do (thus enabling you to invest in the best employees, tools, and of course, R&D) and to make sure that your customers are only charged for the exact time and materials needed for the successful completion of the project.

Internal and external post mortem meetings

In order to make every project better than the last one, it’s imperative to go back and analyze everything that went well and didn’t go well in the previous project. I recommend two separate meetings, and the order really depends on how things went and what the main challenges were. When in doubt, have the external meeting first. Invite your customers – and in some cases, other consultants involved in the project – to discuss what worked well in the project and what might have been a better approach.

What about you? What are your tips for providing a great experience with your Professional Services team?

What’s company culture anyway?

Almost every candidate I’ve ever interviewed has either mentioned that our company culture was the reason why they applied for the job or has asked me to describe what our culture looks like. This is a good opportunity to dig deeper and ask the candidate “What does culture mean to you?” The answers typically cover a wide range, from “laid back atmosphere” to “wearing jeans”, and from “being able to work from home” to “young company”. But here’s the thing: none of those things define your culture. It’s not a dress code, or teleworking, or a specific demographic. Not at all.

Culture is something that is easy to see when you’re on the inside and hard to describe to anyone on the outside.

Here are some of my favorite definitions of company culture:

It’s how someone feels after interacting with someone in your company. At Hannon Hill, we want to make sure that every team member, regardless of their role and department, has face to face time with customers. That’s why it’s not uncommon for our Services Director, our VP of Engineering, or our Content Marketer to go to conferences or for a member of the Engineering team to be on a support call. One of the biggest measures of our company culture is indeed the way that our customers, prospects, and partners feel when they interact with us. This means that we need to live our values (being supportive, positive, and self-starting)  through and through, making them a part of each person’s fiber so that nobody even has to think about the right way to act. It’s part of our nature.

It’s how every team member acts when nobody’s looking. Similarly, you can look at company culture as something that is so precious to every team member that they will always act according to your common values and mission, even when nobody’s watching (including the CEO or their manager). The team member will know what to do, whether that’s watering a co-worker’s plant when they’re on vacation, cleaning the coffee maker, getting an early start to work on a special initiative, listening to audiobooks during their commute, and seizing other opportunities to get better at their craft.

I love this description from Harvard Business Review:  “Culture guides discretionary behavior and it picks up where the employee handbook leaves off.” Culture can become particularly apparent in challenging situations, such as an emergency call from a customer or a high pressure request from a prospect. Do your team members feel empowered to act? Can you trust them to do the right thing? Culture also is also reflected in the way people interact with their manager. What do they do when they made a mistake or things went wrong? How do they express themselves? How do they greet each other in the morning? Do they feel comfortable bringing new ideas to the table?

Your company values are the core around which your culture revolves. Take some time to write down those values. Here are some examples:

  • Be humble and scrappy
  • Embrace challenges and change
  • Work hard, be nice and dream big (as seen at Atlanta Tech Village)

Now let’s get back to the happy hours, the free lunches and snacks, the casual dress code, the standing desk, and the bouncy ball seats. All of those can be attractive perks that can help you reward your team members. However, the single biggest perk you can give to your team your commitment to ensuring that they won’t have to work with someone who does not live the company values. 

What about you? What’s your favorite definition of company culture?

Saying “no” for the greater good

Being responsible for the success of your company means that you strive to achieve maximum happiness levels for your customers, employees, and stakeholders. So of course, your first instinct tells you to say yes to each and every request. Saying no is so much harder, but there are many cases in which a “no” is indeed in the best interest of your company and, in the long run, for everyone involved, including your customer base. Let’s take a look at situations in which a “no” makes sense and really shouldn’t be this hard.

No to a feature

“If we only had this feature, we’d win every deal”. I’m sure you’ve heard similar statements from your sales reps. And yes, your reps are the ones who directly interact with your prospects, so it’s only natural for them to share a prospect’s comment during a demo with your product manager or leadership. Feedback from your reps is vitally important and you should always hear them out. But it’s equally crucial to teach your reps to ask questions with regard to the prospect’s objectives rather than about their preference of a specific feature. Sometimes, another vendor may have sold the prospect on a certain feature but there may be better ways to accomplish the prospect’s goals. Or maybe the flashy feature that your competitor made sound so appealing just doesn’t fit into your vision of your product and the future of the industry or isn’t even in the best interest of your customers. Understanding your prospects’ goals and identifying the ideal way to help them achieve those goals should be at the core of your road map. And that may very well mean saying no to a feature request. Take all feedback seriously but to stay true to your vision and always have the best interests of your customers at heart. Don’t dilute your product with features that might result in a quick win (as in increased sales) in the short term but that make your software hard to maintain, don’t drive the desired results for your customers, or prevent you from working on better, more impactful features.

No to customizations

Similarly, your prospects may approach you with customization requests. Typically, the younger your company and the more prestigious the potential customer is, the more inclined you are to say yes. Be cautious. Once again, consider the long term impact. How hard will it be to maintain the customization? Is a SaaS based model what you ultimately strive for? If so, how will you handle clients who have their own customized product? Does it even make sense for the client? Customization requests can spawn a lot of great ideas for your road map, so be sure to listen and ask questions. But don’t be afraid to say no to something that will hamstring your engineering and support team.

No to projects

At Hannon Hill, we’re lucky enough to have a thick pipeline of project requests from our customers, ranging from small implementations to content migrations and even large scale integrations. Occasionally, the scope of a request falls outside of what we typically provide. Clearly, we would never take on a project if we thought it to be a bad fit for our areas of expertise. We want to focus on what we do best. We will consider saying yes if a) we fully understand the scope and the risks, b) it’s something that will make future projects and helping other customers easier, and c) it helps our team members grow professionally. However, if the answer to those questions is no or if we believe that our partners are better suited and can deliver better results, it’s a no. After all, would you want your plumber to install your hardwood floors?

No to terms and conditions

Ah, contract negotiations. They sure can be tricky. As a software company, you protect yourself by having a license or subscription agreement in place which clearly states your and your users’ responsibilities. It defines warranties, liabilities and indemnification and outlines processes for remediation in case of a dispute. Sometimes, your potential customers want to negotiate the terms of your agreement or even provide their own contract. What do you do? You can either stand firm or negotiate. In certain circumstances, it may be okay to make a concession, while in other cases, you need to assess whether the level of risk of agreeing to a change is worth it. As you know, even the most rigorous QA process can only reveal the presence of bugs, but not their absence. If the potential customer’s terms specify warranties and liabilities that open your company up to a potential financial loss that is disproportionate to the value of the deal, saying “yes” would not make sense, but narrowing down the definitions of the terms would. At the end of the day, a customer who is a good fit will shy away from working with a vendor who will agree to just about anything to get the deal, even if that means jeopardizing the longevity of the business.

No to a prospect

Arguably the hardest “no” happens when you have to walk away from a potential customer. But sometimes, a prospect is simply not the right fit for your product, your service, or your company. This can have a variety of reasons. The prospect may not have the proper staff to be successful with your product. They may have unrealistic goals or expectations. They may actually need a completely different type of product. They may not even really understand their own needs or need something that is not your area of expertise. Regardless, reject the idea that any new customer is good for business. Wouldn’t you rather provide good guidance to your prospects by saying “no” than to lose them once they see for themselves that it wasn’t a good fit to begin with? The wrong fit is bad for all parties involved. It can have a negative impact on team morale and on your reputation (and thus, future business).

At the end of the day, you want to deliver the right product to the right customers under the right conditions in order to ensure long term success and happiness. And that’s why a quick yes isn’t always the right answer. Say no when it’s for the greater good.

What about you? When do you find it unnecessarily hard to say no?