This Product Manager Feared Customers

Susan landed her dream job — she was a Senior Product Manager at a fast-growing company. I knew her well. She got to work with brilliant people every day, building an amazing product. The culture was great and the team was focused on building something lasting. She was happy.

After several months at the new company, Susan was on a customer call. The customer began complaining that the application did not have a feature that was critical for his team and he was furious about it. He yelled. A lot. Susan took it personally.

After a few more unpleasant interactions with other customers, she began to think twice about interacting with certain customers. Susan started dodging customer interviews in general and avoiding product demos altogether. She got queasy when she even thought about dealing with an annoyed customer. All she could think about were those negative experiences.

In her mind, customers wanted to talk to her because they had a complaint. She believed that the best way to get her job done was to stay away from them completely. She kept her head down and focused on adding more features to the backlog.

She lost touch and ultimately moved over to product marketing. In hindsight, it was obvious that Susan was headed for a challenging future as a product manager. Do you know why? She got spooked and started hiding from customers.

You may not think this is a big deal. But if you are not careful, avoiding your customers can spell the end to your product management career as well.

If you want to be a great product manager, you must never avoid customers — the good ones and the rough ones. Here is how to conquer your fear and get back in the game:

Change your perception
See customer problems as opportunities to improve. For example, if several customers do not understand a new feature, perhaps the user interface needs some tweaks or the help articles need improvement. Your customers will give you valuable insight into what is missing if you do not immediately dismiss what they are saying.

Lay aside your own agenda
Drop your preconceived notions about the customer. Open your mind to the possibility that something good might come from the conversation. At the least, you will learn something new about the challenges your customer is facing. When you take time to listen, you will gain new insights, making your customers more real and less threatening.

Offer an outlet for ideas
I cannot think of a better way to respond to customers than building the features they request. That is why we added an ideas portal to our product roadmap software — to capture great ideas from anyone at anytime.

We encourage Aha! customers to contribute new ideas and vote on others, and we notify them if their idea picks up steam. And we do our best to ask for guidance when we do not understand what is being requested.

I am not saying that you have to build every feature that customers dream up. And there is no way that you can spend all of your time speaking with them. But when you encourage customers to share ideas, you will be pleasantly surprised at the dialogue and relationship that develops.

If you are a product manager who is walking away from customers, you are missing out on a critical piece of the job. Customers are the lifeblood of the business and deserve your attention. Lose touch and you will likely lose your job, like Susan did.

At Aha! we make it a point to get close to our customers. In fact, every employee must do a customer demo when they start at the company. I still talk to customers every week, because I do not want to lose that close connection.

In the role of product manager, you must be as comfortable interacting with customers as you are with your colleagues.

Great product managers take on every aspect of the role with equal amounts of enthusiasm and drive — and no fear.

Do not miss the chance to make real connections with the people who place their trust in your company. Not only does your career depend on it, you will find that interacting with customers is one of the greatest parts of the job.

What advice can you share about communicating with customers?

About Brian and Aha!

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 product roadmap software — and the author of Lovability. His two previous startups were acquired by well-known public companies. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the adventure of living a meaningful life.

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