Brett van Zuiden

Finding product ideas in new customer expecations

One of the best ways to improve your product is to ask your newest customers what they think your product does, and then make it a reality.

When a new person starts using your product, they come full of expectations about all the benefits it will provide. Whether from a marketing campaign, sales pitch, or recommendation from a friend, there is some promised or imagined value that made them interested enough to try your product. These newest users are full of ideas of how your product should work - and unlike you, your team, or your established customers, they are not limited by the constraints of how your product actually works today. As a result, your newest customers can be a great source of ideas if you ask them what they want, and then figure out a way to make it happen.

An example of this is Clever’s Single Sign-on product: for the first few years after launch, we offered one-click access into only the roughly 100 applications that built an integration with Clever. No one called this a “limitation,” it was just how our product worked: our team and established customers understood this, and apart from the occasional ask for Clever to integrate with one app or another, we were rarely asked for anything different. If you asked a brand new customer, however, they said “Clever provides single sign-on into all my apps” - it was only once they started using the product that they realized it only supported certain applications and updated their expectations. After spending some time with our sales team and new customers, we realized we had a major gap in our product and revamped the product to provide single sign-on into all applications. It was a huge success - “SSO into everything” is now a core part of our product messaging, and as of 2019 Clever SSO is used by 25% of U.S. K12 schools.

While these sorts of changes seem obvious in hindsight, companies often develop organizational blindness that prevents them from seeing these opportunities until a competitor comes along and offers it instead. This is largely due to inertia - the product works a certain way today, and the majority of the company has been told that today’s product is the one they need to sell and support. Even when feedback is passed along to the product team, the feedback is typically weighted by how large or established the customer is - those same customers who have already run into all the rough edges, heard your team’s explanation about why certain features are hard or haven’t been built yet, and eventually stopped asking for anything but bug fixes or routine extensions to your core product.

The one exception to this organizational blindness is your sales team: they spend so much time with customers and are so incentivized to uncover customer pain that they have a highly tuned sense for what your customers wish your product did. In fact, your company probably has lots of training and guardrails in place to prevent your salespeople from selling customers on features that don’t exist yet. But if you ask your sales team what they wish they could be selling (or what they’re already selling today and not telling anyone!) you’ll find a trove of great ideas to make your product more successful.

It is fashionable to think that users don’t really know what they want, that it takes an enlightened designer or product manager to cut through the feature requests and find unmet needs. But a surer path to success is asking your newest customers the value that they think you provide, and then having the courage and creativity to push past the limitations of your current product to deliver on that promise.