Product Teams

This Is Why Today’s Product Leaders Need to Be Customer-Obsessed

Published Jul 11, 2019

It’s tempting to believe in the archetype of a visionary, larger-than-life product leader who knows what their customers want even more so than the customers themselves. But on a day-to-day basis, the function is more about building bridges than commanding stages. I recently spoke with Matt LeMay, who wrote Product Management in Practice, and he conveyed — emphatically — that the Jobsian archetype is misleading at best. LeMay’s perspective is that successful product managers are those who best reduce the divides separating engineering, business and customer.

Pendo’s Chief Product Officer, Brian Crofts, shares at least part of Lemay’s perspective. Specifically, he highlights “customer-obsession” as the most essential trait of a high-performing product leader.

For Brian, and for top product leaders around the world, sitting back and passively listening to customer feedback as it comes in isn’t good enough. Today’s leaders need to have a (healthy) obsession with talking to customers, absorbing their problems, and bringing to life solutions. Only by repeating this motion over and over, with hundreds of customers, will the leader develop the skill needed to identify the customer’s true problem.

Customer obsession is one of the 7 skills we’ve highlighted in our latest eBook, The 7 Skills for Successful Product Leaders. Let’s have a look at what makes this one so vital.

Customer Obsession in the Age of Amazon and Uber

Your customers now live in a world where they can order just about anything online (including a ride to the airport) and have it arrive at their door in a couple of hours (or, in the case of an Uber or Lyft, a couple of minutes). As a result, their expectations have shifted.

Even if your company builds B2B software, remember: You’re not really building your product for businesses — you’re building your product for the people at those businesses. It might sound like a spurious distinction, but the reality is if you’re not prioritizing the needs of your users and delivering as much value to them as possible, you’re living in the past.

Today, the best B2B product leaders don’t obsess over the customer logos they get to put up on their website. Instead, they take a page out of the consumer playbook and obsess over creating incredible experiences for the people who are actually using their product. As April Underwood (former Slack CPO) explained to Time:

In the consumer world, you have to build software that is delightful and useful enough that people decide to use it. You have to earn every user one-by-one. In enterprise, historically those decisions don’t get made by the people who use the software day-to-day, they get made by CIOs or IT administrators, they get made based on negotiations and cost and a lot of other factors. The usefulness of the platform has historically been an afterthought.

But according to Underwood, the good news here is that companies are abandoning the old approach, and more and more product leaders are focusing on building products that provide continuous value to customers and help solve real problems. She added:

There’s a whole proliferation of software tools that are getting better and better for every type of task that you need to get done at work. They similarly are being chosen by the employees that actually need to use them.

Final Thought: Finding Balance

The goal of being customer obsessed isn’t to fulfill every single feature request you hear from every single customer — over time, you’d end up with a bloated, complicated mess. Instead, it’s to communicate with customers regularly to identify and prioritize the solutions that will have the greatest impact on their experience.

Of course, as a product leader, you also need to keep an eye on your company’s bottom line. Because while your product should provide continuous value, your business should generate continuous revenue. (Which is why the second habit on Brian’s list is being business savvy.)

Ultimately, it’s not enough for a modern product leader to master a single skill. While being customer obsessed is one crucial prerequisite, the best leaders are well rounded and have a deep understanding not just of how the product works, but also how the business works.