Customer Centricity—The Secret to a More Strategic Product Roadmap

December 1, 2021

Brilliant founders are overrated. So says Hubert Palan, founder and CEO of Productboard, the customer-centric product management platform. He’s not wrong. 

In a conversation on The BUILD Podcast with Blake Bartlett, Hubert talked about how it’s bad for business to create a situation in which only the founder is allowed to be brilliant. Rather than creating a bottleneck, it’s much smarter to inspire each member of a team to find their own brilliance. The founder will always have the deepest context for the vision, but the goal is to get everyone else up to the same level of understanding so they can help execute on that vision.

To build an organization that brilliance can run through, you need to adopt a truly customer-centric approach. Customer centricity is a term that gets thrown around a lot, but Hubert explained in real-world terms what it looks like in practice and how it helps to scale brilliance and define a more strategic roadmap and go-to-market motion. 

What does customer centric mean … really?

In the startup world, success depends on the speed and quality of your decision making. To get ahead, you need to be fast, and you need to be right. 

“The slowest way to build products—surprisingly—is to test everything with customers,” says Hubert. “The fastest feedback loop happens when you can make decisions within your own brain.” But you can only make fast, accurate decisions in your head if you’ve done the up-front work that’s required to become truly customer centric. It’s the ability to internalize the customer’s pain points and needs that ultimately saves you time and gives you the edge against the competition. 

But what is the definition of customer centricity exactly? It’s more than just talking to customers. It’s about really listening to them, developing empathy, and then using what you’ve learned to develop a different kind of segmentation strategy. Hubert outlined three steps for building a more customer centric approach:

Step 1: Gain really deep user insight

User research is key, but the standard exercises are not enough. “You don’t achieve customer centricity doing research by the book. You have to develop empathy,” Hubert explains. “You need to have genuine curiosity and you need to make a habit of interacting with your customers regularly.” Five or six UX interviews won’t do it. For a statistically significant understanding of the market, you need to expand the conversation to include more people.

You also have to learn to listen. Really listen. There’s a lot of information out there about active listening and other techniques that can help you refine your skills in this area. Hubert recommends connecting with people in their “natural habitat,” and—whenever possible—getting insights directly rather than through a middle person. 

Part of what helps ensure that you’re not just going through the motions is to know what you’re listening for. “I listen for attributes that help me understand whether something is unique or repetitive,” Hubert says. “Whether it’s an isolated comment or representative of a broader segment or opportunity.” Listening well and carefully helps you identify key patterns.

Step 2: Redefine your market segments based on user insights

How you segment your market drives your product roadmap and go-to-market strategy. Organizations that are truly customer centric craft their segments based on different attributes and criteria than organizations that just give customer centricity lip service. 

Hubert makes a distinction between customer centric segments and personas. Personas are important to help provide a sense of various buyer roles, but the segmentation he focuses on takes place more at the business level. While it is based in part on traditional company attributes (B2B vs. B2C, industry, seniority, geography, etc.), it relies more heavily on non-traditional attributes such as whether a company takes a digital-first approach or is in the midst of a digital transformation. A segment may also be defined based on whether a company approaches the market with more of a lean startup/customer centric strategy or an old-school, engineering-first approach. 

“Your job as a product manager is to really uncover what’s in play behaviorally,” says Hubert. So, it’s more than just applying certain labels to a company. It’s understanding how the people in that company view the world and their place in it. It’s getting to the bottom of why they make the decisions they make. 

Step 3: Invest in your customers

“You want to get your customers invested in your product by closing the feedback loop, creating a community, and turning them into fans,” Hubert says, making the point that this isn’t a once-and-done kind of proposition, but an ongoing relationship that needs to be nurtured. “You want to engage customers with the right level of frequency, and also talk to prospects and non-customers.”

Completing the first two steps in Hubert’s three-step plan for customer centricity sets an organization up for success in this third part of the process. When you understand your customers so deeply that you can empathize with their needs, it’s much easier to start and carry productive conversations that are valued on both sides.

Empathetic customer centricity helps you define product market fit.

“Product market fit is not a single point in time. It’s a continuum,” says Hubert. “A founder may set out in the right direction, but from there the whole path needs to be discovered. And you need to train your team to make sure you stay on the optimal path.”

Customer centricity allows you to create a very useful matrix based on true audience segments and pain points. Hubert and Blake compare it to creating a kind of chess board on which you can plot your optimal product road map, adjusting direction along the way. “When you identify the segments, and then—through active listening—identify their pain points, you can create a flexible matrix that gives you optionality,” Blake says. “After you’ve shipped something, you can then decide if your next effort will go deeper for that same segment, or pivot to focus on the pain point of a different segment.”

There are still a lot of influencing factors to consider at each decision point—the size of the segment, how intense the pain is, willingness to pay, size of business opportunity, etc.—but it’s much easier to navigate to a strong decision when you have the matrix as an organizing element. “The market is going to pull you a zillion different ways,” says Hubert. “A strong, customer-centric strategy provides clarity and confidence that helps you stay the course instead of running after every new cluster or segment that crosses your radar.”

A customer centric approach also supports a strong GTM strategy

True customer centricity is not just a product team thing. It touches every part of your organization, and drives both the product roadmap and the go-to-market strategy. 

Unfortunately, the continuity of customer centricity breaks down in a lot of organizations. It may play a fairly strong role in sales and/or marketing, but gets a little diluted or even distorted once it reaches R&D, product, engineering, or design. “Often, the buyer persona is happier,” Hubert says. “But the broader, business-level segmentation is not that present.”

And having a consistent, cross-functional understanding of the business-level segments is critical to both short- and long-term success. “If different departments understand the segmentation profile differently, use different messaging, or try to address different pain points, the customer experience isn’t going to be consistent,” says Hubert. “You have to have unification in order to make the right decisions.”

Which brings us back to empathy. If everyone in your organization shares genuine empathy for the customer, they will be naturally committed to engaging customers in authentic conversations. They will be serious about listening well so that they can get to the bottom of what the customer needs, and then work together to deliver a product that meets those needs. 

It’s clear that at Productboard, customer centricity is not just a buzzword. It’s a way of doing business that’s based on practicing great listening skills, developing genuine empathy, and ensuring that everyone in the organization is given the opportunity to discover and share their own brilliance. That’s how they scale their success and make sure that they are following the right product roadmap for their customers and their business.

To hear more from Hubert and Blake, tune in to the full episode on The BUILD Podcast

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