Product Focused vs. Customer Focused Product Management: What’s the difference?

BY Kate Leto ON SEPTEMBER 13, 2011

Recently I found myself having a debate with a colleague over what it means to be a Product Focused and Customer Focused organization.  The conversation became a sort of brain buster that continued to linger in the back of my mind.  The more I thought about the two approaches, the more they began to blur into one, and I started to wonder if there really is a difference between the two.  And if there is a difference, is one approach really better than the other?

Before I drove myself slightly crazy trying to think through these deep, deep philosophical questions on my own, I thought I’d open up the conversation to all of you and get your thoughts on the topic as well.

To structure the conversation, let me start with how I’m defining both approaches. They may not be the “right” definitions, but a place to start.

In my mind, a Product Focused organization is one that has a roadmap and even vision for the product based on delivering something that the team believes will meet market demand – whatever the market may be.  I think of iPad and Apple as a classic example.  Mr. Jobs and Apple have yet again created a product that most likely wasn’t identified by consumers as something they must have or even need in daily life. Instead, the focus was on creating a product Steve and team thought was right for market (although what market, I’m still not sure).

On the other hand, a Customer Focused organization is one where decisions about the product are made based on aligning customer needs and wants with the overall goals of the organisation.  Simple as.  Customer feedback via surveys, customer service emails, Tweets, blogs and more in-depth qualitative research are golden nuggets in these organizations.

Here’s where I start to get confused.  In keeping with my definitions, in order to be a Product Focused organization, don’t you need to be a Customer Focused one?  After all, even if Steve and team were imparting the “build it and they will come” philosophy in creating iPad, they had to have some sort of customer research/insight that the product would float.  Right?

I’d like to hear from all of you on this.  When you think about Product Focused and Customer Focused, what do you think of?  Does your organization fit in one camp or the other? Or is the something in between? Is one approach better?

If we can solve this quandary together, we’ll next move on to even deeper philosophical questions like why do people still use PowerPoint.

About

Kate Leto

Kate has more than 20 years product management, leadership and marketing experience with the likes of Yahoo! (Sunnyvale and London) and MOO.COM (London). Since 2011 she’s been a strategic product consultant, leading organisational design and transformation initiatives across finance, government, travel, e-commerce, and non-for-profit sectors. Her blog, Product EQ is dedicated to the practice of cultivating emotional intelligence in product management.product/organisational transformations.

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