Best Practices

How a product-led approach creates a better customer experience

Published Feb 28, 2022

Most people who work in the world of product are already familiar with the concept of product-led growth: a business strategy that puts the product at the center of the buying journey, with a focus on user acquisition, expansion, conversion, and retention.

But putting your product at the center of your customer experience isn’t only about growth. The most successful organizations expand this mindset further to include the entire user journey—from buyer consideration to customer renewal. They see the product not just as one step in the customer journey, but as the center around which all their other business functions orbit. To them, better integrating the product into their users’ lives isn’t just a product management or engineering challenge. It’s a company-wide activity.

Todd Olson (CEO, Pendo), Trisha Price (CPO, Pendo), and Jeff Hardison (Head of Product Marketing, Calendly) recently sat down for a discussion about what it means to be product led today, and where product-led strategies could take us in the future. 

Read on for a recap of their conversation, or scroll to the bottom of the page to watch the full recording.

Product led is for everyone

Todd kicked off the conversation by debunking the myth that product-led strategies are only for established enterprises or software as a service (SaaS) companies. “Every business can leverage product-led strategies, and the reality is that every company is becoming a software company,” he said. “All of us can take advantage of what it means to be product led.”

Trisha’s experience before she came to Pendo also points towards this same democratized view of a product-led mindset. During her time in the finance industry, she was no stranger to hearing from organizations who assumed that product-led or “freemium” sales tactics weren’t for them. She noted that, even in highly regulated, traditionally non-SaaS industries, strategies like product-augmented onboarding or contextual in-app support are highly accessible (and non-compliance-dependent) ways to apply a product-led mindset.

Here are a few other examples of how Todd, Trisha, and Jeff have seen product-led strategies show up in their daily lives:

  • Guitars that require an app for tuning, lessons, and recording learning progress
  • B2B trade magazines that have had to adapt by creating digital products (and product-led onboarding strategies) to stay afloat
  • The process of purchasing a vehicle from brands like Tesla and Carvana, which require virtually no interaction with salespeople

While it’s true that product led is for everyone, that doesn’t mean that one size fits all. Trisha highlighted how the COVID-19 pandemic has forced organizations to rethink how their users want to engage. “Working from home really changed our mindset,” she explained. “Now users want companies to interact with them on their own terms. [So companies need to] make these interactions purposeful and intentional—not necessarily required.” Companies need to meet their users where they are—and pulling on different product-led strings can help them get there.

The benefits of being product led

There are myriad benefits to becoming product led. Internally, product-led strategies help companies:

  • Become more agile and efficient
  • Deliver more effective onboarding (which ultimately leads to better adoption and stickiness)
  • Streamline the sales process
  • Have more contextual and timely up-sell or cross-sell conversations with customers

As the head of product marketing at Calendly, Jeff has also seen first-hand how a product-led mindset can positively impact an organization’s marketing capabilities. “The challenge is that a lot of marketers have tended to lean into the early parts of the journey, like customer acquisition—but that’s just one part of the journey,” he explained. The most successful companies use product-led marketing tactics throughout the entire user journey, finding strategic and fluid ways to plug in at every stage of the lifecycle—from acquisition, activation, and adoption all the way through up-sell, cross-sell, and renewal.

Jeff also noted that the best product-led marketing teams look to the data to better support and enable their peers across the organization. For example, using product analytics, growth and customer marketing teams can understand the journey users take from becoming marketing qualified leads (MQLs) to product qualified leads (PQLs), then dig in even further to understand their behaviors and product usage. They can then have timely discussions with their sales or customer success teams to strategically intervene where users might be struggling, or create a plan to better engage them in the moments that matter most throughout their journey.

Trisha noted that these strategies aren’t just for your paying customers—but can be valuable tools to convert free users, too. “Using free trials or a freemium model not only benefits your sales team, but also your customers,” she said. “It allows customers to get their hands on the product and make sure it meets their expectations [before talking to sales], which helps prevent churn later down the road.” She also explained that self-guided tours are a powerful and low-friction way to get users interested and onboarded into your product by allowing your users to learn about the product in-context—and to do so at times most convenient for them.

Product led ≠ humanless

As automation continues to loom as a hot topic in tech, it’s important to remember that product-led strategies aren’t here to replace the human touch—but rather, to help augment it. As Todd put it, “product-led strategies help you use your humans in more thoughtful, strategic ways, and reserves their talents for more high-value activities.” In short, product led helps free up teams to foster more meaningful connections with their customers and users.

Jeff used in-app support as an example of this human and product-led intersection. In-app messaging allows teams across the organization to reach users as they are engaged with the product—making it easy to deliver timely and contextual guidance, in a format that doesn’t require users to do a great deal of context-switching. 

But in-app messages also present a good opportunity for teams to insert human-driven support, if needed. For instance, if analytics data shows you that a user is struggling or getting stuck at a particular stage of completing a task, you could serve them an in-app guide with instructions or the option to speak with a member of the customer success team. You could even use this behavioral data to deliver 1:1 support by surfacing the user’s behavior directly with their customer success manager (CSM) and encouraging them to get in touch with the user directly.

How product led drives innovation

In addition to improving operational efficiency and driving a better customer experience, product-led strategies also help companies become more innovative and agile so that they can stay ready for anything.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a prime example of how product-led strategies became a business imperative—with companies like MindBody and Bright Horizons having to quickly shift their delivery methods to help meet their customers where they were in their new virtual and work-from-home lives. But even without a global crisis, product-led strategies are pushing teams to explore how to bring all the elements of their brand and customer experience inside their products. “Product led doesn’t mean no humans,” Jeff reiterated. “I do see more organizations experimenting with how users [can or should] work with the humans that power the product-led company.”

Trisha shared a similar viewpoint. She highlighted her recent interactions with Uber, Whole Foods, and Instacart as examples, and praised how they’ve brought previously disparate activities (like trying to call the person fulfilling your order) inside the product. “Product led is driving companies to have people engage with your product outside of the realms you’d typically think of,” she said. 

She also noted that, for any company looking to become more product-led, having a clear and complete view of your qualitative and quantitative data is crucial. She explained that while the innovation flywheel is rarely linear, having a good understanding of how your users are using your feature or product—as well as what they think of it—is the fuel that helps product-led companies stay focused so they can continually strive to build more natural (and sticky) user experiences.

What’s next for product led?

The panel wrapped up their discussion with their predictions for what we can expect to see next in the world of product led. Here’s what they said:

  • Trisha: “None of us are really going to know [what’s next], but if we have the mindset and the data, we’ll be in a better place to keep shifting towards customer preferences . . . We need to create a data-driven culture as product leaders.”
  • Jeff: “I’m interested in seeing how we get the people-people to get along with the more design-driven product-people. [All of these teams] wanting to get involved or run experiments in in-product experiences is something we’re all going to have to adjust to.”
  • Todd: “There’s a blending [of disciplines] that needs to happen . . . For example, a lot of companies are going to have to figure out how to help teams like sales become more product led.”

Looking to dive deeper into more product-led tactics? Watch the full recording of Todd, Trisha, and Jeff’s conversation below. And be sure to save your seat at our next product-led webinar once registration opens.