In this article I want to continue with the series on coaching, this time to help develop the critical trait of customer-centricity in the product manager.

If you ask a CEO or a product manager if they care about their customers, you’ll usually get some sort of indignant “Of course I do!” response, sometimes followed with a defensive “Are you suggesting I don’t?”

But while pretty much everyone talks about how much they care about their customers, when you actually get inside the company, and you see how they handle a situation such as an outage, or when a product change causes customer confusion or frustration, or the frequency that they actually sit down face-to-face with real users and customers, it’s easy to see the difference between those that claim they care about their customers, and those that demonstrate their care every day.

This trait is very related to company culture, and is of course heavily influenced by the words and actions of the company’s leaders.

I’ll say up front that if your leaders don’t demonstrate this sincere care for your customers, then it will be very hard to develop this in your product managers or anyone else.  In each and every case I know of where the company, in my view at least, truly cares about their customers, this starts at the very top.

But assuming this is something that is central to your company’s core values and not just lip service, then we need to talk about how we develop this trait in your product managers.

Clearly some people are more naturally empathetic than others, but in my experience, people often tend to assume the worst about people they don’t know.  The most common manifestation of this are the countless product managers that tend to think of their customers as not very bright.

The first thing I like to emphasize is to be very specific and protective over the term “customer.”  It is an all-too-common problem where a product manager thinks she has many different “customers” – in addition to the actual paying customers, she views each stakeholder as a customer, and she views the customer service team as her customer, and she views the CEO as one of her customers too.

I see this as just a remnant of the old role of technology to “serve the business.”  But more importantly – and I personally feel very strongly about this – besides confusing the relationship with stakeholders, this seriously dilutes the role of the true customer.

So I talk with the product manager about the various constituencies involved with her product.  Besides the users at our true customers of our customer-facing products, there may be internal users of our customer-enabling products, and there may be developers using platform services, and all of these may be necessary to provide value and are therefore important, but none have the weight or importance of the true customers.

I see the same problem in consumer-facing companies where there is a tendency to view our advertising partners as customers, but again, they are not the customer and it’s important to realize that.  We work with our advertising partners to develop products for our true customers.  If the true customer does not like the product, they won’t engage, so we fail, and our advertising partner fails as well.

I prefer to keep the term “customer” almost sacred, and I believe this helps the product manager to understand the role they necessarily play in our actions and decisions.

I am a big fan of using storytelling to drive home what caring for customers really means in practice.  A few of my favorites are the early FedEx Wedding Dress story; the REI Hiking Boot Replacement story (described in the movie Wild); and many stories from Zappos, which you can read about in the book Delivering Happiness.

I also share that when I was a new product manager, the person coaching me insisted that before I would be allowed to make a single decision, I needed to first visit 30 customers (15 in the US and 15 in Europe).  Not only did I learn the many ways our customers were different than I expected, I also established many personal relationships, some of which last to this day.

I don’t think the number 30 is critical here, but I do typically recommend at least 15 customer visits to get started, and then a minimum of 3, 1-hour customer interactions each week ongoing.

During the weekly 1:1, I love to ask about these customer interactions and see what the product manager has learned.  I also encourage the product manager to share with me stories of what they experienced during these visits, and then to share these stories widely around the company.  I explain that my purpose is to establish the reputation of this product manager as someone that has a deep and personal knowledge of the company’s users and customers.

The true test of customer-centricity is how the product manager handles difficult or especially stressful decisions.  When a customer is at a standstill (often referred to as a “showstopper”) because of some problem with our product, how is the product manager responding?  Is it business as usual? Or is the product manager ensuring a sense of urgency (not panic), and leading by example to come up with an effective solution?

One of the behaviors I love in companies that are truly customer-centric, is that the leaders will usually proactively reach out to the product manager, and offer to help in any way they can.  This sends a very clear message as to the importance, without resorting to micro-managing the team.

Be aware, however, that in companies that are truly customer-centric, if the product team is not prioritizing solving the customer problem as high as the executives do, then the executives may lose confidence in the product manager, and often they will step in.  They might be very supportive of the concept of empowered teams, but if you make them choose between empowered teams and taking care of customers, you probably won’t like what they decide.

Finally, while I need to make certain the product manager genuinely likes and respects her customers, I don’t want her to think her job is to ask her customers what to build.  I am always careful to emphasize the job is to innovate on behalf of our customers, and I explain the difference between how a strong product manager works, and how, for example, focus groups work.

In my experience, sincere and consistent customer-centricity takes a while to develop in a new product manager – on the order of a year or more.  There will be mistakes in judgement along the way, but with active and constructive coaching, you can help the product manager learn how to embody this trait, and communicate its importance to her product team.

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