Do your product teams work closely with those who manage customer success at your SaaS company? In this article, we are going to be exploring the relationship between new product development and customer success.
From experience, I have found that when these two departments work in harmony, with strong levels of cross-communication, SaaS companies can craft incredible products that truly deliver a strong value proposition for their desired target market with a go-to-market strategy.
The first thing that intrigued me when I met and spoke with Abby Hammer, is the fact that she is leading both product and customer success at ChurnZero, as their ‘Chief Customer Officer’. As you will know, these departments are usually kept entirely separate in a typical SaaS company.
Abby worked in customer success for many years and eventually moved into product. When Abby joined ChurnZero, she was able to merge those two areas of experience and find synergy between them after product launches.
It was clear to me that something useful would come out of a discussion with this incredibly accomplished professional. I had so many questions to ask Abby about this unique approach.
I’m a big fan of Abby’s decision to lead both product and customer success at ChurnZero, because it shows just how important they consider the customer to be in the process of product development. I was very interested to learn more about what this dynamic looked like internally.
The customer is so often forgotten about in product development. In order to craft a strong value proposition and marketing strategy, it is essential for product teams to have customer experience at the very forefront of their sales strategy.
As Abby admitted to me in her own words, SaaS product development and customer success is “a bit of an unusual combination to put together”.
She continued to explain more about the concept, “It happens to work really well for us here because ChurnZero is a customer success platform. This means that our customer success team and our product team stay inherently very, very close together”.
“As I’ve developed the teams, both customer success and product, here at ChurnZero, I’ve come to believe that it’s really essential to a [SaaS] businesses success that these two areas are not just aligned but are allies in how they approach addressing customer needs and presenting real solutions to customers”.
It soon became clear that Abby saw a strong reciprocal relationship between those two areas of a SaaS company. Abby wanted to take this opportunity to talk about some habits that she has seen in herself and in new product teams that stand in the way of having a strong relationship.
Upon identifying these, she also wanted to make some suggestions on how the relationship can be improved, ensuring everyone is getting the most out of it and that it is running to mutual benefit.
PM Habits That Prevent A Strong Alliance
Habit #1: Believing Product Rules Rules Alone
“A lot of the time, as product managers, we believe that product is king. That’s why we find what we do to be interesting and challenging. We have to question whether that’s really the right view for us, not only as PMs, but also for the overall health and growth of the company”, Abby told us
As Abby explained, “In my experience, in order to build a great product for potential customers in your target market, you have to really love the problem that you’re solving. You have to love it even more than the solution you actually create because the problem isn’t going to go away, it’s going to keep shifting and evolving”.
Abby talked about the idea of shifting away from thinking that the product was king, to the product was king. “There’s all this space that suddenly opens up for all these influences and other teams to have a hand in developing that solution.”
Overwhelming, if a decision-maker chooses to stay with you or leave, that’s really a decision they come to because of their whole experience of your product. As Abby said, “Customer success is certainly going to influence how people feel about your product”.
Abby believes that this is a good thing because customer success teams are great at doing this, to a greater extent than a product or sales team. “They know your customer best, they’re on the front lines, they intimately understand customer problems. Customer success is also really focused on realised value”, as Abby told us.
Customer success teams are your first line of defence. One of the most interesting things for Abby about customer success teams is how creative they are. As she explained, “Their entire day is about making sure they can get a customer to a point of success, which often means being creative and how they fill gaps between expectation and reality”.
From this creativity in the customer success teams, Abby has seen this lead to some really great product ideas, which end up being sent to the product development teams. This is just one example of why customer success teams and products teams are in many ways the perfect match.
Customers are uniquely well-positioned to be included in the product development process. These are the people that can ultimately help you to improve the value proposition of your SaaS products, strengthening your GTM strategy and marketing plan. However, Abby has been vocal about PM’s judging feedback by its cover.
Habit #2: Judging Feedback By Its Cover
As Abby Hammer told us, “As product managers, we’re always trying to connect with your customers directly as much as possible. However, we’re never going to have as much of a relationship with our customers in comparison to the customer success team or sales team”.
Abby thinks there’s a real opportunity for product teams to use customer success teams to deepen the voice of the customer within a new product. “Product teams need to set customer success teams up for success in how they receive feedback on a product”, she explained.
When you receive feedback from your customers, Abby believes it is important to sort through the emotions of the feedback to find the quality in it. You should look to identify feedback that you’re getting consistently on problems with your SaaS product. This will help to strengthen your value proposition.
Abby Hammer likes to encourage customer success teams to be purposeful in how they track specific new product feature requests from customers for a SaaS product. “I highly recommend that you encourage this formal loop of feedback with your customer success teams”, Abby said.
She also recommended for this to be done with your sales team as part of their go-to-market strategy (GTM). However, Abby noted that it is important for your sales team to distinguish between the feedback of prospective and existing customers. “When we’re doing roadmap development, we’re going to be targeting different features depending on what we’re trying to influence”, Abby said.
If you decide to reject customer or target market feedback, it’s important to be clear about why. You don’t want to get into the habit of rejecting their feedback without any substantial context.
Habit #3: Doing it all ourselves
“I will openly admit that I am a control freak. I think a lot of product managers are – it comes with the territory. We’re tasked with a lot of responsibility and when things don’t go well, it falls on us. Therefore, it’s naturally that we have a lot of opinions on how things should be done”, Abby said candidly.
A lack of inclusivity can be detrimental to the internal morale of a SaaS company. “The degree to which you can make sure that [product and customer success teams] have an influence in [product development] can make them feel positive about the product and proud of supporting it”, Abby explained.
Abby likes to promote a constant inclusion approach, helping new product managers to be more inclusive of their product-facing teams in the product development process. This can come in the form of focus groups or feedback groups, internal availability, beta programs and feedback loops.
Whilst this may seem like a lot of extra work for customer success teams to participate in, Abby has found that customer success teams are often excited to be given the opportunity to have a say in the development of a SaaS product. In many cases, she has seen teams specifically make time to be involved upon being invited.
“If we participate in this constant inclusion, the likelihood that we are going to get better results for our target market with a stronger value proposition, and also improve internal morale and connection to the product, is just going to increase a lot”, Abby explained.
Just a few weeks ago, Abby did some roadmap planning, consisting of a session with her sales team and customer success team. She gave them an opportunity to vote on new product features that she was considering.
Abby had a high-level action plan of the new product features that she wanted to create, and was interested to see what those in the sales team and customer success team would put their money towards if they were in her shoes and needed to boost customer acquisition and bolster the competitive advantage of the target audience.
They do a simple exercise with some post-it notes, letting the team members go around and vote on specific new product features. “We then had a really productive conversion afterwards about what they’re hearing from existing and potential customers about these features. I found it to be very valuable from a product perspective. It influenced the prioritisation of those features and what I was thinking about including in those features”, Abby explained.
Abby found that this experiment gave customer success teams a taste of what it is like to work on product development, that so often happens behind closed doors.
Habit #4: Not looking beyond Product for team expansion
Whilst there will certainly be gaps that you need to close, Abby sees customer success managers as potential candidates for product manager roles. “I think we often don’t look beyond the product for team expansion. I have grown product teams by finding great individuals working in customer success”, Abby told us.
Abby continued on this subject, “A lot of times, customer success managers are really great product managers, they have many of the key strengths that are hard to teach, such as strong interpersonal skills. They have this unique background of being really connected to the customer”.
The combining of product and customer success teams can help to bolster the value proposition of your SaaS product, offering further insights into how existing customers feel about the product and the pain points it manages to effectively address.
Your sales force can then use the heightened value proposition across marketing channels, such as social media, for customer acquisition.
By having more voices in the room, an expanded product development team will enable your product managers to gain more informed perspectives on your SaaS product from customer-facing teams, bringing customers to the very core of product development.