It is easy to over-compartmentalize different aspects of a business. Sales personnel try to move a product, marketers try to draw attention to a product, and research and development teams create innovations and iterations that lead to new products. But this kind of thinking–this idea that sales and marketing and the evolution of a product are siloed operations–can result in the loss of key opportunities to improve on a business template.
Salespeople are often the first to hear about problems customers have with a product, and are often a customer’s most frequent point of contact. A sales team can’t outmode the functions of research and development, but it should provide supplemental knowledge and data to improve them. Improvement in this case is defined as any usage data that causes a change in a product designed to increase customer satisfaction or reduce cost. Hands-on, real-world experience data is pivotal to future discussions of a product’s growth. In fact, many of the tools that sales teams work with are designed to make this data easy to find and interpret.
Don’t Just Ask Questions–Ask The Right Ones
Salespeople should be asking purposeful questions as a regular part of their cycles. Sales is grounded in relationships, and as a customer’s needs change, their relationship with a product changes. The answers to purposeful questions can form the core of new innovations, but only if they are recorded in a way that makes discussion easy. As with any relationship, take care with the amount of questions you ask at a single time. A customer’s attention has a lot of competition, so questions that feel like a chore to answer, or questions whose impacts don’t feel immediate to them, can quickly make them move on.
Questions for Initial Calls, Product Demos, and Other Pre-Sales Situations
What feature would you consider most important to you?
Some form of this question can make it clearer what a sales professional should actually sell a customer. When asked over time, it can lead to a greater sense of what repeat customers really value. Do most customers consider a single aspect of the product most important? Is the product over-designed for this purpose, or is it lacking in support for this feature? If this purpose were given more priority, would it change sales in a drastic way?
What role do you want this product to play in your business operations? What do you want this product to do for you?
If all a customer is looking for is a wrench, selling them a tool kit doesn’t always make sense–and isn’t always easy. Questions like these can make it very clear what the public perception of your primary product is. If a product is 90% towards being what a customer expects, development can usually make up the difference. But if the product is only 20% of the way there, your marketing message might need tweaking. Either way, sales has an opportunity to gather its own information as well as something that can help the rest of the company.
This information is generally more valuable than soliciting data directly for products. As many companies have learned through costly investments, sometimes a product idea customers offer is far from what’s actually desired. They want a product or a service to play a certain role in their lives, and pitch a product they think will do just that. Identify that role, and let development figure out how to fulfill it.
Questions for Following Up, Renewal, and Other Post-Sale Situations
How is the product performing? What did you like best?
This idea should form the foundation of any initial follow-up conversation. It can take the form of a survey or a product evaluation or a social campaign, but direct outreach can go a long way. Remember that it’s not enough to ask simply if a customer likes a product. Ask concrete questions with some open-endedness about the customer’s direct experience with the product. At this stage, it is best to stick to positives. What is a customer’s favorite feature? What features ended up being the most useful? Is there a feature that was useful in a way the customer did not anticipate?
Are there any features the product is missing? If so, what, and why?
The other side of the follow-up coin focuses on the future. Some customers might end up having unusual ideas about what a given piece of software or a product should include, but businesses that collect this kind of information will often find some common threads in their customers’ requests. The reason behind these common desires can vary, so some research on the market and competing products will usually be necessary to fully understand the results of these types of survey queries.
Customers can develop these expectations for several reasons. Asking why they want a specific feature can provide further insight into your customer base, and can drive new developments even beyond their unique requests. Customers may see the feature as a standard from their experiences with other products, or they may find themselves unable to do something they want or need to do with your product. Either way, contextualization of product wishlists and additional feature requests is essential to success.
Are there any aspects of your business you wish you could more easily integrate with this product?
Once customers have experience with the basic features of a product designed to help them get better business or improve their lives in some way, they can begin to comment on other aspects of their routine that they’d like to see it connect with. This sort of thinking can lead to radical changes in the product if pushed too far, but it’s a great way to kick-start development. Do customers of your product want to use it to merge different parts of their business or life? If common threads start to show up in this line of questions, you may have a viable new idea on your hands.
The Bridge to Customer Relationship Management: Depositing Data
Perhaps you have already begun to put together customer data, building possibilities for new products or specific product improvements. This information has little value until it’s in the hands of people who can apply it impactfully. To get that information from sales to development in a streamlined and easy way, you have to improve interdepartmental communication and make use of agile technology.
CRM Systems and Permissions
One way to make sure that the right people have access to the right customer data in a CRM system is through role-based permission. These systems are common in today’s technology and allow a business to establish who gets access to what information. Giving a product development team access to the suggestions, requests, and common frustrations of customers is one way to increase the rate at which this team can address issues further up the product pipeline.
Keep track of permissions carefully. Too much information can be risky and overwhelming, and can make a product development team feel overwhelmed. Prophet CRM uses a very customized and user-specific implementation process for this exact reason: every business and industry has different ways of developing their products and sustaining customers, and CRM technology should be flexible and adaptive to future changes and unique business idiosyncracies.
When dealing with large amounts of data, context can sometimes be lost as it is interpreted by different departments. The people developing a product may not be able to make sense of sales-discovered trends by themselves — it’s up to salespeople to define what is important based on empirical evidence and customer-centric experience.
If your departments do not already regularly share data and collaborate, you should lay guidelines for the process before you start the flow of information. Set aside time for a weekly meeting between sales leaders and product/project managers so that they can begin to understand each other’s jargon, focuses, and goals. Keep communication open and avoid generating an environment that breeds unhealthy competition over data.
Don’t Get Caught Up in the Chase
It is important to remember when aggressively pursuing customer feedback (especially though many different channels) to keep an eye towards fundamental changes. Most of the improvements customers will request will be incremental or modest, so building a product exclusively around this type of feedback can lead to design stagnation. While customer feedback can drive innovation, that innovation needs to also be molded by creative problem solving and forward thinking.
Further, relying too heavily on customer feedback can result in chasing competitors. A lot of changes driven by small customer requests might be met with a lukewarm change in the usage of the actual product — these changes might just be things that are already available with other products. These improvements won’t necessarily produce the kind of dramatic revenue-shifting change that some business leaders expect of product change.
When in Doubt — Always Be Learning
One of the best ways to solicit solid feedback is through the identification of “power customers” — people who buy or use more of your product than their peers. It is not a good idea to completely bend a product to the whims of these customers, but they can certainly share more complex and exhaustive insights than other customers. Soliciting more detailed feedback from power customers can make them feel valued by the company, in turn generating more word-of-mouth business and brand credibility.
It can be easy to have each team in a company laser-focused on only one specific aspect of a business or a product. More often than not, these separate teams often have a lot of insight and information that can help each other rise. CRM systems give such teams an easy way to capture, interpret, share, and discuss this information in a way that can lead to meaningful business growth.