How to Ignore Customer Requests

3313998177_d38c471257_zAll the product management experts and lean gurus tell you to understand your customers, listen to them closely, and tailor your offerings to their needs. Pragmatic Marketing has been preaching this for years. Hell, my blog used to be called “User-Driven.” Being close to your customers has become such a mantra for product managers that many roadmaps and product backlogs are really just lists of customer requests ranked by how many customers asked for them (or how large the customers who asked are.)

But wait, didn’t Steve Jobs say “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them?” And didn’t Henry Ford say “If I’d asked people what they wanted, they would have asked for a better horse?” Is there a way we can give people what they need, want, and will buy without asking them what they want? It turns out yes.

I Don’t Want to Complain, but…

Ever notice how specific requests from customers often are? “If you could just move the save button a little to the left,” or “I want to able to sort by urgency but then drag items into any order I like,” or “The Goals field needs to support up to 1,000 characters.” Why is that?

Customers want to be helpful. They don’t want to sound like complainers and they want to ease the pain of any implied criticism by being really specific about what they want. Unfortunately, in their zeal to make your life easier, many customers will forget to tell you what problem they are trying to solve. Some, if they have received the request initially from someone else in their organization, may not even know.

“Many requests are just a customer’s best guess as to a solution to a problem they haven’t articulated.”

The real trouble, though, is that the solution your customer has come up with is probably not the best one, and almost certainly would not solve the underlying problem in a repeatable, broadly-applicable way. Acting on every specific customer request (even the most popular ones) is a recipe for a fragmented, bloated, unusable product.

The Art of Why

I make it a policy never to act on a customer request without making sure I understand why they want it. What problem are they trying to solve? What value do they expect to derive from this change or addition (or subtraction)?

Sometimes you find that, if you understand the few underlying problems people have, you can come up with a single solution that solves the needs of many customers at once. This can shrink your customer request list down to nothing in short order. It is a powerful technique, but getting to the root “why” is sometimes harder than it sounds. Here are a few tips:

  • Get to the person with the pain — The request may have come from your salesperson or their contact, but you want to speak to the person who actually buys or uses your product, the person who is experiencing the pain that caused them to make the request.
  • Understand their role — When you get to this person, don’t ask them about your product or their request right away. Instead, find out what they do, what’s important to them in their job or lifestyle, what their goals are, and where they are frustrated. This will provide context for their request.
  • Ask ‘why’ 5 times — Ask why they want what they’ve asked for. Then ask why that thing is important, and so on until you’ve arrived at the root cause of the issue. This will usually come back to making money, or saving time or money in some way.
  • Gauge the level of pain — To prioritize problems to solve, you need to understand how much value is being left on the table. Ask your customer to quantify the pain of this unsolved problem in time or money. Or ask how much they are paying in either of those currencies to try to solve the problem today.

Customer: I want to be able to drag items on my backlog into whatever order I like
PM: Since you can already sort by priority, submitter, date, and other factors, why do you want this?
Customer: I usually sort by priority, but then I want to group related items
PM: Why do you want to group related items within the list?
Customer: I might want to implement them together in the same release
PM: Given that you can assign items you intend to implement together to themes, why is grouping them in the backlog list important to you?
Customer: I often assign themes, but I want to focus just on the items in a single theme when doing backlog grooming
PM: Did you know you could filter the backlog by theme?
Customer: I didn’t know I could do that! Oh, that would solve my problem! Thanks!

Yes, get to know your customers — their goals and aspirations, where they struggle, what they value, and why they complain or make requests. But then go back to the office and work with your team to come up with the best, most-leveraged, and most-general solution to those core problems. This is the difference between being a service organization catering to a few customers and a product organization serving a market.


Image from Flickr Commons. Used with permission.

One thought on “How to Ignore Customer Requests

  1. Great post — a very practical approach to a big challenge. The “don’t ask, build” approach to popular customer requests (or worse, any customer request) seems to be the root cause of almost every technical debt situation I’ve seen in my career. I’m always interested in hearing how different professionals balance this issue.


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