Not surprisingly, when you’re looking for customer validation for B2B products, there simply aren’t as many datapoints to draw from in enterprise product management as there are for consumer products. Therefore, every interaction counts and your enterprise sales force becomes one of your closest allies when gathering requirements and validating product assumptions. The following are some tips and tricks I’ve learned working on B2B products at Google and Rubrik, a startup in the cloud data management space.
Collect Customer Validation Early on
Aspiring enterprise product managers often tell me that collecting a robust customer sample is difficult. And I agree – in consumer product management the customer sample might be in the thousands or even millions, but if your product targets enterprises, and especially large enterprises, you might only get to talk to a handful customers before you make key product decisions. So how do you weight their feedback? I suggest taking the following into consideration when making a decision:
Enterprise product management goes hand in hand with enterprise sales, so it should be no surprise that many features are prioritized based on who’s asking for them. Or, how many customers are asking for Feature A versus Feature B.
Sometimes it might still be worthwhile to have a feature if every competitor already has that feature, or if no competitor yet has that feature. For example, when Amazon came out with its public cloud platform AWS, that didn’t stop Microsoft from launching Azure.
Even if customers aren’t asking for a feature, the market may still be moving in that direction. For example, while only a few customers might be asking for serverless protection – because most Fortune 500 are still migrating to microservices and some still even have mainframe applications – it doesn’t mean that this feature wouldn’t be a valuable differentiator.
Educate the Customer
By nature, consumer products are designed to be intuitive – would anyone post content if Facebook wasn’t easy to use? And if no one generated content, then Facebook wouldn’t exist. In contrast, let’s pick a B2B product like enterprise IT backup/recovery (which is what I do) – how do you educate backup admins and database admins that what they’ve been using for the past two or three decades can be improved on? What’s more, it can take six months plus to close a sales cycle: customers have to get approval, establish a real business need, conduct a proof of concept with other competing products, and lastly, get the purchase order to actually purchase the product.
Therefore, as enterprise product managers we often double up as the enterprise sales force – which can mean presenting on behalf of our product at executive briefings or customer advisory sessions. I think it’s important to develop a voice that is sales-y but also deeply technical as an enterprise product manager who is also customer-facing.
Here are a few tactics which I’ve found work well:
- If you’re interfacing with C-level customers (VPs, CTOs, heads of departments), be prepared to sell the company vision as well the product vision. Be prepared to answer any question that might come your way on the competitive front; for example, many times, customers will have come to your exec briefing straight from a competitor’s exec briefing and will likely have heard some misinformation that you will need to dispel. Don’t be afraid to go to the whiteboard and map out different product architecture when talking to the customer.
- If your audience is operational, then be prepared to go into the nitty-gritty of the product. They’ll be the ones using your product so you need to be able to walk them through every product workflow fluently and also answer questions about edge cases. I’ve found that for these conversations, the best way to prep is to run through your product in the shoes of an operator before you speak to one.
Know Your Roadmap
Early in a startup’s life, you are likely to be largely entertaining customers who buy in to a company’s vision. For example during the early days at Rubrik we won deals against large competitors like EMC (in accounts like Cisco and JLL) because we sold our roadmap and vision to prospective customers. However, many startups stumble because they fail to cross that chasm from attracting purely visionary buyers to what Geoffrey Moore in Crossing the Chasm calls pragmatic buyers. Pragmatic buyers are less easy to persuade solely on vision and have concrete performance or scalability requirements to meet before they will consider purchase. So as an enterprise product matures, it’s imperative that a company can cross the chasm.
As a product manager I think it’s our responsibility to help our companies to cross the chasm with a realistic roadmap and a vision of our product area for three months out, six months out, and a year out. I think these should be prioritized according to deal size for the feature(s), and how they position your product competitively.
For example, if competing products are all introducing machine learning (ML) functionality – does that mean your product should? And what’s the scope for this functionality? What type of ML? Do your customers actually base their buying decisions on your having ML?
In my product opinion, successful enterprise products result from early and often customer validation. However, unlike the bountiful MRRs, ARRs, and churn analytics that accompany consumer products en masse, I like to say that customer feedback for enterprise products takes finesse and experience. If you have best practices you’d like to share, please tweet at me @nancyzwang or @theAWIP.