Friday, 2 May 2008

Cherish Demanding Customers

For a small business developing and selling software products, successful management of the product lifecycle is key to future growth and profits. Working out which are the most desirable features to add to your products presents a number of challenges and opportunities.

If you are a small software business it is unlikely you will have a large budget to spend employing market research consultants. So how do you find new features for your products and, just as importantly, work out which features to add first?

The simple answer is that your greatest resource in product management is your existing customers. Listen to your customer feedback and record their comments. By evaluating the feedback from your customers you will be able to:-
  • Develop new features for your products
  • Think up possibilities for new products
  • Potentially charge more for updated, improved versions of existing products.
Customers fall broadly into two categories:-
  • Customers who buy your products and you never or rarely hear from again.
  • Customers who contact you and tell you either what they’d like to see added to the product or what they see as the weaknesses.

This second type of customer can appear demanding – they may appear to expect you to make the changes they want as soon as possible. In some cases they may make you lose confidence in your products. However, if their feedback is handled correctly, their input can help drive your products forward. Here are a number of tips for handling customer feedback.

Record the comments

Whenever a customer contacts you, make a record of the contact and any comments and feedback you were given. Keep a record of:-

  • The customer’s contact details
  • The date of contact
  • The comments as the user said them – not your interpretation of the comments. Resist the temptation to be dismissive of the comments until you’ve had time to think about them.
  • The specific product version the customer was commenting on.
  • Any response you gave to the customer, particularly if you promised to deliver something to them.

Explore the Root Causes of the comments

When a customer contacts you their thought process will often have gone past their original problem and have arrived at what they see as a solution. The problem they talk to you about will then be that there solution isn’t present – “the problem is that you need to add feature X”.

Talk with the customer about what made them think there was a problem in the first place. It may turn out that what they need is already provided by the product. Discuss with the customer whether the existing feature you see as a solution works for them. Even if there is an existing feature that provides what they need, think about why the user didn’t find it themselves – can you enhance usability?

Finding out what caused the original problem for the customer is essential. There may be a genuine problem or weakness but your solution may be different to the customer’s and be more applicable to a wider section of people.

Assess the Requests & Stay in Control!

When first getting feedback from the customer, resist the temptation to promise them an update.

Make sure the customer knows you are recording the comments and that you will actively consider them. However, do not make promises about if and when the feature will be included until you have had time to consider the comments. If you later decide not to implement a feature or to change the way the feature works you risk annoying and losing future sales to the customer. Explain to the customer that you need time to consider the feedback.
This is particularly important when a new product has been released. You need to gather a range of comments over time before deciding which features to add and in which order.
When assessing suggestions, look if competitor products already have the features. If they do then the suggestion is probably a good one. Even so, ask yourself if there is a better way of implementing the feature.

Always ask yourself if a new suggested feature is correct for the way you want the product to develop. Is the feature taking the product up a blind-alley? Can you see that you might have to drop or drastically change the feature in a future version?

The simplest solutions are always the best. It is better to release a simple implementation of a new feature than a very complicated one. Release a simple addition and get feedback before developing the feature further.

Build a relationship

If the customer has made valuable suggestions, follow them up when you have had time to think the suggestions through. Run the possible new features past the customer. Do they think the new features are suitable? By building a relationship with the customer where they feel that their comments are invited you increase the chances of getting good ideas in the future. From experience I know that some customers are superb at providing suggestions and I sometimes feel I should be paying them!

Keep the customer onboard

If you have a good relationship with the customer, and their feedback is particularly good, ask if they would be willing to trial a new version of the product. This can be a valuable means of getting early feedback before exposing your product to a wider market. It can also be a good way of rewarding a customer, making them feel valued and continuing to build a relationship.


In any business, customers are a vital component – they buy your products and give you money! If customer feedback is handled correctly it can guide you in developing product lines.
Always treat customer feedback carefully. Make sure you do what is right for the future of your company and products. Don’t overload a specific product with features. Think about whether there is the opportunity to create an additional superior product line with additional features and a higher price.

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