The Customer is Always Right, Right?

The customer is always right, period.
If you have one customer, your life as a product manager is fairly easy – just do what they ask you to do. If you have millions of customers, use statistical analysis to figure out what product to build. The middle range is where it gets more challenging. Product managers acting in the lower range of that spectrum (typically in B2B companies) must be able to synthesize conflicting data into coherent roadmap decisions. A lot of this data comes directly or indirectly from customers, but usage data is often too limited to generalize upon – especially in small companies. Product managers must have great listening skills, high emotional intelligence, and an ability to read between the lines.

In their frame of reference, the customer is always right
Customers know their business best and can articulate their needs better than anybody else. They pay your salary, so you effectively work for them. In reality, you can’t do exactly what they want you to, even if your company’s website states that you are “customer driven” and are “committed to meeting your customers’ expectations.” Don’t mistake marketing fluff for a roadmap strategy.

Consider a humble chair. Now, put yourself in the shoes of a product manager tasked with creating a better one. Talking to customers, you find out that they want their chairs to have softer cushions, adjustable height, and lighter weight. Oh, and one customer would like it decorated with polka dots.

In your frame of reference, the customer is mostly right
A product leader must take into account the broader picture and consider a large array of factors. Customer opinions matter more than others’, but their input must inevitably be weighed against everything else that goes into the decision-making process. In many cases, it won’t agree with your eventual decision. The real challenge is to find a way to accept their ideas without derailing strategic efforts. While making the right decision is often challenging, communicating it may be even harder. Treading a fine line between disappointing and satisfying a customer requires experience and good business senses.

Back to our chair: you have almost as many different requests as customers, but your company makes only one type of chair. Clearly, one chair doesn’t fit all. What’s a PM to do? while your task is to improve on that chair, after analyzing the feedback you realize that you can only satisfy a few customers at best. Ironically, the least reasonable request is the easiest one to implement – a simple change to the painting process.

The customer being right doesn’t solve your biggest problem
Innovation comes from engineers, researchers, designers, and others whose job it is to create new things. They collaborate well and produce meaningful results when they get the information they need and have effective processes in place. Your job to articulate the goal and work with the team on prioritizing the work based on customer feedback and feasibility considerations. Orchestrating innovation is your job number one, not the customers’.

As a Chair PM, you don’t have to figure it all out by yourself. You certainly shouldn’t make a decision based on partial, conflicting data. First, gather information about the competition and the partner ecosystem, study feasible manufacturing processes and potential materials, and make sure you collect all the data you can put your hands on. Next, articulate the goal and set creativity in motion, leveraging the effective processes you helped put in place. The collective ingenuity of the various stakeholders is the key to figuring this one out.

Product management is the art of the possible. It bridges the gap between customer needs and implementation constraints. It takes courage, experience, and creativity to do it well. Product managers must trust their instincts and the data they painstakingly collect and analyze. They are measured by their ability to find the right balance between contradicting demands, not by their ability to please everyone. In a perfect world, data is always trustworthy and product managers always make the right decision. In our world, however, while the customer is always right, product managers aren’t.

Being the effective product manager that you are, you successfully harnessed the wisdom of your extended team and brought this furniture fable to a happy ending. While the team couldn’t improve on all aspects of the product at the same time, you managed to take it up a notch. There’s always one more version! 

Regardless of the solution, you must be able to justify your decision
Product managers fill the gap between the customer’s frame of reference and theirs with clear messaging, articulating the reasons for any discrepancy. They describe the plans to close the gap and support the reasoning behind their decision with data. Whether the customer is right or not, product managers must grow the business while fostering collaboration and communicating effectively with everyone. This often includes going back to a customer and letting them know that you are unable to deliver on their request. Being able to do this well while helping grow sales and reduce costs separates top product managers from the rest.