Why You Shouldn’t Build What Your Customer Asks For and What To Do Instead

May 17, 2017

Henry Ford is often remembered (even if erroneously so) for his famous quip, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said ‘faster horses.’”

Ford has not entirely escaped criticism for those words. Tone-deafness to customers’ demands defines companies renowned for their culture of innovation.

Customers can be currently ignorant of what a company might argue they should want. IT hardware and software capabilities and automobile features are examples. Customers who in 1997 said that they would not place any value on Internet browsing capability on a mobile phone, or 6% better fuel efficiency in their vehicle, might say something different today because the value proposition of those opportunities has changed.

Apple’s innovation has been about their capacity to look beyond the customer’s immediate wants and transcend into their needs.

 

Why you should not build what your customer asks for

The earliest version of the product is typically a representation of your vision for the product.

The growth trajectory for the company is a meeting point of your vision for the product and the customer’s needs.

Fierce loyalty to the vision for their products is the basis of businesses that outlast its founders. When features are built based on customer requests and not on the product vision, it becomes forced. Naturally, the vision gets diluted, and so does the legacy of the product. While your customers may not know what your vision is, this haphazard growth will be tangibly visible to them.

What we do instead 

After 1.2 billion calls, five years of iterations and constant conversations with our customers, we have found a way to balance the vision and the customer demands.

Here’s how we do it:

1. Ask questions (the right kind)

When a customer articulates solutions they’d like to see built, what they are doing is explaining the problem they’re trying to solve. But in this articulation, they miss the actual problem. When companies get feature suggestions from their customers, it should serve as a trigger to look for what’s making them ask for that feature.

How we do it:

A clipboard with a series of predefined questions doesn’t cut it. Focus on the right questions. Avoid closed-ended questions because they tend to narrow conversations, thereby limiting insights.

For example, instead of saying

“Did feature XYZ act as expected?”

can you say

“What was your expectation of how feature XYZ would work?”

When we understand the real problem, suggesting a solution becomes rather easy. After all, we are the resident experts on the product, aren’t we?

And this solution may not even need a new feature. Even in cases where a new feature needs to be built, it could look a lot different from the one that the customer requested. Or, you will come up with ideas to make it better.

2. Evaluate the Fit

Driving the growth of the product by building the right features is similar to the role of a curator. There is a constant need to understand your options deeply and pick the most promising ones.

How we do it:

At Exotel, we follow a simple 4-point framework to evaluate where the feature fits in the larger scheme of our vision for the product. We slot each of our features into the following categories:

Metric Movers: These are the functions that make our product successful, providing us with the runway for continuous development.

Customer Requests: These come as requests directly from our customers. They provide us key insights based on actual use cases of customers.

Delight: This is the bucket of features that spring internally from design and technology insights. These keep us from ending up with a product that does not inspire loyalty or passion in our users.

Strategic: Features that include experimentation to anticipating market and tech developments. They help us build higher-level features quickly.

3. Measure the Impact:

Every decision about the next feature to build is important. For one, everything takes effort. With limited time and resources, we need to be very clear about where they need to be deployed.

How we do it:

We came up with a nifty little approach called the RICE score to evaluate a potential feature.

RICE stands for Reach, Impact, Confidence and Effort.

Reach: How many customers will this new feature impact over a single quarter? What are the benefits for them?

In an enterprise setup, when a feature suggestion comes from an experienced user, the chances are that most of your other customers will use it too. Feature requests with a potential for broad impact get prioritised.

Amazon is a great example of this, where most of AWS features are driven by some of their most seasoned customers like Netflix or NASA.

Impact: Every project we undertake has to make business sense, not just to us, but also for our clients. It brings us to the important consideration – How much will this project increase conversion rate when a customer encounters it?  

The balanced scorecard has four focal points for evaluation, and the impact is measured on a scale of massive to low in each of these areas.

Evolution

Revenue

Customer Experience

Internal processes

 

Confidence:  For every estimate that we make about the reach, impact and effort, we also vote on the confidence levels of our estimates.

The confidence score ranges from high confidence (100%) to Moonshot ( 20% or less).

Effort: Every project is evaluated on the opportunity cost we have in lieu of all the other projects we could implement. The effort is estimated in terms of the work any team member can do in a month. Members of every team – product, design and engineering are included in the estimate.  

The larger the gap between the effort and the impact, the higher the potential for the request to land on our feature pipeline.

The RICE framework has helped us build some of our most successful features,  like Lead Assist which allows dynamic number allocation for marketplaces. This feature came in as a suggestion from one of our clients but is now used by a lot of our other customers as well.

The Lead Assist feature was path breaking for a lot of our enterprise clients as it tackled problems they frequently encountered. And this included the cost of numbers, efforts of procurement, accountability, and even monetization of their services.

Takeaway

The truth is, a remarkable and inclusive customer experience doesn’t happen overnight. However, every organisation can give its customers a stellar role to help them move the needle. Prioritising your customer’s growth and being maniacal about your product’s vision can deliver significantly for your product and your brand- but most importantly, your customers.

 

Shivakumar Ganesan
Written By
Shivakumar (Shivku) Ganesan is the Co-founder & CEO of Exotel.

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