Main illustration: Sara Wong
As your startup grows and starts to gain traction suddenly everyone has opinions about your product. You will drown in them. But where do they come from, and which can you safely ignore?
Growth comes from acquiring customers – customers who will definitely have opinions about what you should build next. You then add teammates so that you can continue to build your product, and you wouldn’t have chosen to work with them if you didn’t want their opinion too. Maybe you take on advisors or investors, and again, you are choosing them because you want their opinions. Maybe the media start covering your product area and talking about the must-have features, or the future of the space. That creates more noise for you. And even if journalists don’t have an opinion themselves, they’ll send lots of people your way who do. Just ask anyone who’s been on the receiving end of the TechCrunch effect.
At a very simplistic level, we’re all agreed the customer is king. They are the ones who are going to be using and paying for your product, so their opinions carry unique value. Thankfully getting customer feedback is easy today; product feedback tools like Intercom mean you can get it in a few clicks. Often the challenge is knowing how relevant it is to you.
Here’s the types of feedback you should never listen to.
1. Aspirational statements
What people say they want is dependent on their context
It’s human nature to want to improve ourselves and so we like to make aspirational claims that we convince ourselves we are going to follow through on. We are prone to this kind of thinking at the start of the year when we are encouraged to make New Year’s resolutions. That’s why the busiest days of the years in gyms are the first and second Monday of January (it’s human nature to try and start afresh at the beginning of each week, not just each year). It’s also why gyms are able to sell seven times as many memberships as they have capacity for. Gym operators cash in on people’s aspirations, hence the hefty annual discounts they offer. As Derek Sivers pointed out, often aspirational statements have an inverse correlation with behavior.
This also happens in business. Customers will tell you they want less meetings, but if you build a product around removing the need for meetings you might find that it struggles for adoption. Some people subconsciously value the way meetings give them an excuse to move to a different space or allow them enjoy some social interaction with their team, though they’ll never say it out loud. And for a lot of people it’s not actually about less meetings, it’s about bad meetings. Maybe they just need better ones.
A lot of the time what people say they want is dependent on their context and the solutions they can envisage. Advertising guru Rory Sutherland put this best in a famous TED talk.
When engineers were tasked with improving the Eurostar train journey from London to Paris, they spent about £6 billion on improved infrastructure and rolling stock, which reduced the time of the three-and-a-half-hour trip by 40 minutes. Not too shabby at first glance. They did this because passengers complained about it taking too long. But as Sutherland points out there are many alternative ways to address the same feedback, with higher impact. For example, you could sell fine wines, play some relaxing music, improve the seating and offer great WiFi. This would have been significantly cheaper and people would have probably asked for the trains to be slowed down.
2. Hypothetical or espoused behavior
People always like to predict their behavior, even in circumstances they’ve never experienced. In product feedback this means you get a lot of hypothetical behavior – people tell you they’ll upgrade if you add that one more thing, or they’d adopt it when their team size is big enough. There’s a massive temptation to treat this on equal footing with people who have actually upgraded or adopted your product, but it’s a mistake. In general small companies don’t know how they’ll behave as they grow, don’t know if they’d buy something until they see the price, and don’t know if they’d use something until they actually have the need.
3. Third-party statements
Q: Would you buy this product?
A: “Not me, but my boss controls the budgets and he’d definitely pay $1000 a month for this”.
Q: Would you use an analytics feature?
A: “I wouldn’t but I’ll tell you who needs this, the team in marketing”.
Never take advice from someone who doesn’t have to live with the consequences.
It sounds a lot like validation, but it’s really just a non-customer guessing the behavior of someone they know. At best it’s a hypothesis that you can investigate, at worst it’s just someone making stuff up to try to please you.
If those are the answers you are hearing the only logical next step is to track down the boss/marketing team and start over with them. Otherwise you risk basing your product decisions on what one person thinks another might do. And that’s never a great basis for building a new product or feature.
In a classic article on his 54 biggest screw-ups as a startup CEO, it’s no surprise that Anand Sanwal, CEO of CB Insights, said that taking feedback from non-customers, or people who will never be customers, is simply a waste of time. He cites Mark Cuban who says, “Never take advice from someone who doesn’t have to live with the consequences”.
What does a real problem look like?
At Intercom we are big believers in Clay Christensen’s Jobs-to-be-Done framework, which tells us customers don’t actually buy product categories, and they certainly don’t purchase your product because of their demographic. Instead they encounter a problem in their life and they say, “I need to solve this problem. What can I do to solve it?”. They hire your product or service to do the job of fixing the problem they are experiencing.
The evidence of a real problem isn’t based on aspiration, hypotheticals or hearsay. It’s rooted in actual experience. It looks like a swiped credit card. It looks like a checkbook stub. Like time invested fixing something, like pain felt frequently struggling with something, or like a person hired to oversee something. If you can’t find how it’s currently solved, then be worried.
You can always tell when people are pitching something that doesn’t do a job because they’ll begin with phrases like, “Wouldn’t it be cool if… ” when in reality “cool” on its own doesn’t pay the bills. A simple example I expect to hear lots of:
“Wouldn’t it be cool if you could use just one messaging tool to do all your communications?”
Is it really a problem that you have to use WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Telegram, etc. separately? Or is it just one of life’s many minor irritations that doesn’t annoy you enough to send you off looking for a solution, never mind paying for one? If it’s the latter, you’ve doubled your marketing challenges; you have to convince customers they have a problem, and then convince them your product solves it. It can be done, but it’s easier to avoid it.