Don’t get caught in a tug of war with clients

How Much Should Clients Influence your Product Roadmap?

If you’re in a B2B company, especially with enterprise clients, you likely face this conversation with your sales team on at least a quarterly basis:

Account Manager: “I just had a great call with Acme Co! They are very positive on moving forward but wondered if X feature is possible now or on our roadmap.”

Product Manager: “Hmm, I’m glad it went well. But no, we haven’t gotten that request before and it’s not currently planned. What’s their need?”

Account Manager: “Well they insinuated that not having it was going to slow down the deal. Can I loop you in on the next call with them so you can learn more?”

Sigh. You don’t want to be on sales calls hearing random requests from potential clients who aren’t even giving you money yet. But you do want new revenue in the fourth quarter.

What do you do?

Customers Inform, They Don’t Control

Customers should inform your roadmap. They don’t get to clobber it. If you’re feeling frustrated with how vocal your customer base is, try thinking of it this way: You have a group of users so engaged with your product that they are willing to suggest additions, changes, and fixes that would make them love it even more.

Rather than dismiss or bow to the whims of various customers, try to harness their voices into your normal product development process. You could:

  1. Include them in a Customer Advisory Board if they are a strategic client
  2. Ask to schedule time to chat 1:1 to run your roadmap by them and get input
  3. Publish a draft roadmap for the next six months and solicit feedback from existing users
  4. Institute a feedback gathering or feature suggestion tool and ask your front-line team members to suggest this as the method that customers use to share feedback

These methods allow you to maintain control over the product direction while soliciting important feedback from real customers at the point that you need it. Nothing replaces conversations with real users, so never shut down the opportunity to connect!

Get the Deal Done…With Caveats

In the case where revenue is on the line, like in the example above (a real example of mine), be pragmatic. How long will it take to accommodate what this client is asking for? Is that an acceptable tradeoff for the business? In my case, the cost was about $10,000 and the potential upside was $700,000. We deemed it a worthwhile investment to get the deal done.

However, I first explored other solutions, both technical and non-technical, to see if we could meet this client’s needs without upsetting the delicate balance of my end-of-year plans. I originally thought it wasn’t possible to do what this client wanted without implementing it for all clients, which was not acceptable to me.

When you’re in this situation, get the deal done, but with these caveats:

  1. Limit your investment — We found a bit of a hack that would satisfy the client’s need, and while it’s not a great way to achieve the end goal in code, it will work. We have the foundational elements needed to do it the “right way” already on our roadmap, and when we get to that point, we plan to rebuild the hack so we don’t hate ourselves down the line.
  2. Don’t overpromise on delivery dates — Depending on your industry, contracts may have flexibility to get signed without the functionality in place, as long as there’s a guaranteed delivery date. Give yourself lots of padding on this, and never promise a date without the sign off of your engineering manager.

Don’t Sacrifice the Experience of Other Customers

Consider the impact to your other users by introducing the requested change. Is it a one-off feature specific to a customer’s use case or regulatory needs? Or would it be useful to other customers as well?

In our case, we don’t have much leeway to customize the experience for one account vs another. I was worried that the requested functionality, if enabled for all clients, would have a negative impact on other users, putting up a barrier to completing actions we want them to do. I looked for alternative solutions until my engineering manager came back with an idea about how we could isolate it just to this one account.

Do not sacrifice the experience of other customers to satisfy the needs of one. Keep looking until you find a suitable alternative. It may be a hack. It may be a manual process. But it is not acceptable to jeopardize the relationships with all clients to please your newest one.

Design a Solution Applicable to All Customers

The flip side of this is, of course, to look for a solution that would benefit a large number of customers. Rarely is a client’s need isolated only to themselves. You may work with other clients in that same industry who would appreciate the feature, or you may be able to design it in a way that allows clients to manage the settings and disable it if it’s not relevant to them.

Can you adjust or expand the original request to be something you can market? And more importantly, is that worth it when considered against the rest of your roadmap?

Involved, opinionated clients are one of the best gifts a product manager can hope for. It means people care about your product and they want to see you do well. Leverage these voices through feedback channels you can manage to help inform your roadmap at the appropriate times. When one-off requests come in, consider the importance of the client relationship, the investment you’ll have to make, and if you can adjust the requirements to be useful to other clients as well. At a minimum, don’t make the experience of other clients worse. With a little creativity, you may be able to turn a request from one into a benefit for all.

This article originally appeared on http://ashleywali.com.

Product leader @discuss.io. Inspired by @adilwali, our 2 boys, & the beauty of the PNW. Passionate about gender equality, travel, & weekends at home.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store