Brett van Zuiden

Managing product requests from customer-facing teams: top 2 things

Customer-facing teams are inundated with feedback from customers, and in turn tend to inundate product managers with far more requests than can be prioritized. A simple technique to maintain a reasonable backlog while making customer-facing teams feel empowered is to ask each team to identify and advocate for their top two, and only two, product requests.

In my tenure in product, I’ve come across dozens of cases where a customer-facing team (support, success, sales, etc.) feels disenfranchised from the product prioritization process. While they will be brought in to provide feedback on a new feature or context on a particular customer problem, the team feels removed from decisions around what to build when. They feel like the customer requests they bring in day after day aren’t getting prioritized, and in extreme cases, may even feel that the product team doesn’t care about the type of customer they work with and stop passing along feedback altogether.

This is really, really bad! It’s bad from a human perspective that these employees don’t feel supported by their coworkers in product, but it’s also bad from a business perspective because it’s a sign that customers may also feel that the company is not responsive to their requests.

At the source of the issue is that product managers need to prioritize across the daily requests of many different stakeholders, while still leaving room for big bets. When a common customer request seems to be falling on deaf ears, it’s typically not that the PM doesn’t know about the issue or doesn’t care, but instead that there is a bigger opportunity or more urgent need in some other area of the product or business. However, an explanation of why some other area is more important – even an articulate, empathetic one – only goes so far for a team that feels left out and has to tell yet another customer “thank you for the feedback, I’ll pass it along to the product team to see when we can get it prioritized.”

There is a simple technique that goes a long way towards addressing this tension and makes the PM’s job much easier: in addition to passing along customer feedback as they hear it, ask each team to filter through all the feedback they receive and identify the number one and number two requests for product. These should be continually updated - if one request gets checked off or another issue comes up that is more important, the team should pick a new #1 and #2 accordingly. These two requests should be top of mind, and confirmed or reiterated at every meeting with the product team. And as the PM, at a minimum you should commit to making some progress on at least one of those top-two issues every quarter or two.

This technique accomplishes a few things: first, it makes clear the need to prioritize. The team gets direct experience with how hard it is to not be able to say yes to every feature, and hopefully builds some empathy for the PM’s job by doing so. Second, it gives the team a clear way to influence the product prioritization process, empowering them through their ability to make decisions about what is #1 and what is #2. Third, it offloads a lot of the work of combing through and prioritizing customer feedback to the people who are best equipped to do it: the customer-facing teams themselves. The PM can coach teams through different prioritization techniques, how to use data to estimate the impact of one initiative vs. another, how to assess a must-have versus a nice-to-have, etc., thereby gaining leverage through having teams do this first pass of prioritization themselves.

With proper coaching, customer-facing teams are typically much better at assessing the priority of different requests than a PM relying on information second-hand, plus teams feel far more empowered if they get to make the prioritization decision themselves. With ambitious, product-oriented coworkers, a PM can even encourage the customer representative to take the first pass at a spec.

Why set the limit at two requests per team? It seems to strike a good balance - asking teams for a single top priority tends to make teams bundle all issues into one big ask, making it harder to find quick wins to slot into sprints, whereas asking teams for three or more can quickly overwhelm the PM and lets teams off the hook from making as many hard choices. Assuming a single PM has around 4-7 stakeholder teams, that’s 8-14 asks - if every two weeks the PM can find a quick win or making some progress on a team’s top priority, then most teams will see some work done on one of their issues every quarter.

To be clear, this technique should be complimentary to the firehose of requests coming in from customer-facing teams; the goal is not to limit the voice of the customer to two items per team, but to add an additional layer of context from those teams about which issues they think are most critical.

This technique tends to be most impactful in improving the relationship with customer-facing teams who are inundated with customer feedback, but the same “pick your top two” technique can also be used in conversations around polish, tech debt, etc.

By encouraging customer-facing teams to consolidate customer feedback into their top two product requests, trusting their judgement, and following through by slowly-but-surely addressing the issues, PMs will not only build much healthier relationships with their stakeholders, they’ll also rack up quick wins on their customers biggest pain points.