Why Startups Need to Put Customers at the Center of Strategic Decisions

It’s easy to stray away from putting customer’s as your first priority and get caught up in the other aspects of the business. But at the end of the day, without putting your customer at the center of your decisions, it could impact your ability to grow.

As part of our Customer-Driven Development series, we had the opportunity to chat with Patrick Haig, Product Director at TUNE. Patrick’s relentless focus on understanding customers’ problems and measuring progress is not only inspiring, but also in line with a new generation of product teams embracing better ways to put the customer at the center of the product development process.

In this interview, we discuss how engages his team with a new way of working and the mindset needed to make change happen.

Talk a bit about TUNE and your role there.

TUNE, in its DNA, is a mobile measurement company. We aim to make all marketing, performance marketing easier. It started with HasOffers, a platform that helps ad networks manage and measure offers. From there, TUNE developed and released an attribution product to help marketers measure mobile app install campaigns in order to really know the value of users they acquire through specific channels. Both products were the first of their kind.

Today, the business comprises two major offerings: HasOffers, mentioned above, and the TUNE Marketing Console. I sit on the TUNE Marketing Console, which is a marketing suite that has grown to focus on three product areas: attribution, organic acquisition, and engagement.

I’m one of TUNE’s directors of product and have been with the company since 2014. It’s been a crazy path. After having dropped out of law school, I went from client-facing roles at the startup I previously worked for (which TUNE acquired in 2014), to a product manager role, and now to a director role.

digital, marketing, shopping, customers

We talked to a lot of product teams and each of them has a very particular view on what customer-driven development means. What does it mean to you?

I think it’s putting the customer at the center of nearly everything. For me, it’s about making sure that what you’re building measurably solves customer problems. You need to continuously make customers’ lives better. That, to me, is customer-driven development. When you are not paying attention to customers, it hits you in the face. You have to continuously try to put them at the center of your decisions.

It all starts with humanising the customers by helping other teams develop empathy for the customer’s problems. It’s a virtuous cycle. Once you start involving other teams, whether that’s by sharing behavioural data or customer feedback, you can’t help but notice the excitement and their willingness to know more and contribute. That alone drives more conversations about customer problems and helps develop customer centricity even further.

People building products love to see customers using the product, and they love to see that it’s actually helping.

What do you think most product teams get wrong when it comes to customer feedback?

I think there’s a danger in relying too much on customer feedback. In my experience, it comes down to having a proactive product strategy and vision versus a reactive attitude.

Once you understand the problem you’re trying to solve and have enough clarity, you can take the feedback and map it against that plan. I think that kind of forces you to think, “Oh, okay, that feedback does touch on something, but we weren’t planning on doing that for X number of months, so we’re not going to do it until then,” or, “Actually, that doesn’t fall under anything that we want to do.” Then, “Let’s briefly explore whether that’s something we want to do, but not spend too much time on it and say ‘No, sorry, customer — I hear you with that problem but that’s not something we are prepared to do.’”

It’s important to have a product strategy in place instead of letting customer feedback create your product strategy, but you absolutely have to listen to it as well. Customer feedback should be the starting point for conversations, and it should enable you to identify areas you want to understand better.

How do you go about helping your product team and the rest of the business become more customer centric?

It’s definitely been a learning experience. Everything started with a very specific problem within TUNE. We had variety of channels through which we would get customer feedback. It was coming from salespeople and account managers. It came from support, it came from conference trips, and it came from UX studies. All this feedback was coming from everywhere and going nowhere. Well, it was going into Google Docs, or Confluence pages, or it would be sprinkled in a conversation and scribbled in a notepad, but it was never centralized. It was never discussed in a large, meaningful way. Thus, it was never quite internalized and acted upon.

We used NomNom to centralise our data, but once we had everything in one place, the biggest challenge was building a process around it.

Getting cross-functional executive buy-in was essential. We worked to get buy-in from product to UX, and — to a degree — engineering. We also involved support, sales, and client success. We had all these teams brought in at the executive level so they could start driving these efforts with their teams.

For example, it was actually a goal for every client success manager to send in at least two pieces of feedback per week, globally. That was great. Sales started doing it too.

Once the data started flowing from different channels in a more intentional way, we decided to create a weekly meeting where we discussed the latest findings. It started with just the product team, but now includes product, UX, engineering, sales, and client success.

One big thing to come out of these conversations is a huge thirst for those teams to share the feedback they hear from customers and to know what the product team is doing with it. Internal teams want to know that they’re heard and that their customers’ needs are also being heard. They know the product team may not necessarily act on all feedback shared, but now it’s front and center.

Previously, it felt like a black hole. The product team would have its roadmap, feedback would come in, and then nothing would happen. Not even discussion. So that’s where we are today. We are making a lot of progress towards transparency.

Not only do we discuss feedback weekly, we also send an internal company-wide product email every two weeks where we detail what’s been shipped, what’s about to ship, and any success metrics around anything that was recently shipped. Then, at the bottom, there’s this massive section of trends within our customer feedback and quotes.

That email has been a great conversation starter. The replies I get to that email are fantastic. They might be like, “Oh, you know, I’d like to add three more customers who have said that exact same thing,” and then I’ll send that in. We also hear engineers saying, “I love seeing this. Thanks for sending this out,” which helps them engage that much more with the product they are building. Establishing this type of feedback loop with customers and internal teams has had a lot of direct and indirect impact.

It takes a lot of leadership skill to drive this process. You had to not only introduce a new way of working, but also build a very cohesive culture around it. I’d love to dig deeper and understand how you went about it.

I think it was about having an open-minded, positive attitude — a bit like, “Hey, let’s just try this.” There was zero risk. We had already come from a place of risk because we didn’t have any of this data centralized or aggregated. We weren’t doing anything about this problem, so we needed to act.

But not everything I proposed worked. We had to redefine the goal of our meetings, the way we organised our data, and how people interacted with it, but I was clear that it was going to take time and several iterations. We’re still working on it as we speak.

What is your advice for any PM out there who wants to improve her process and help build a more customer-centric culture?

First, I’d say get executive buy-in, whatever that means for your company. You will change how people work to a certain degree. Even if it’s a small degree, it’s still going to be change, and some people are going to be resistant to it, even if it is well-meaning change.

In terms of building a more customer-centric culture across your team…it will sound so simple, but just talk to customers. I have this little story that brought it home for me.

A colleague and I were in a fairly large meeting, and he messages me, “I haven’t heard the word ‘customer’ more than once this whole meeting.” I paused and responded, “Yeah, that’s actually true.” Isn’t that weird? That’s not how we want to be. So, the next time you’re sitting in a meeting — whatever meeting it might be — see how many times you hear the word customer.

If you don’t like what you hear, then change it. Be the one who brings it up. Be the one who says, “Actually, how do we think about this from the customer’s perspective?” Or, “How can we orient this to be more about the customer?” That, in and of itself, I think, is an attitude shift that can spread and that people can pick up on.

Then, of course, there’s the more tactical stuff, like actually getting on sales calls and having those high-level, exploratory discussions with customers about nothing in particular, but about everything. Even if it’s just asking them things like: What are your biggest problems? What are your priorities? That may mean working very closely with UX in a lot of in-depth studies. Make talking to customers part of your routine.

Read more interviews from founders about marketing strategies on TechCo

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Written by:
Sofia is the Founder and CEO at NomNom.it (London ’15). Before NomNom, Sofia was the Head of Growth at Geckoboard. She loves startups, UX, CX, growth, philosophy, psychology, life hacking, data driven culture, art, fajitas and awesomeness.
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