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Building Features Doesn’t Always Solve the Customer Problem

Convincing
Internal Communication
Managing Expectations
Prioritization
Product

3 December, 2019

Gaurav Anand, senior product manager at Zalando, brings light to the importance of solving the true customer problem rather than building features to keep customers at bay. He discusses how to do so in a professional and well-balanced fashion that leaves little to question.

Problem

I was approached by my VP to build a technical feature that one of our existing customers had asked him to put together. Having only spoken to this senior person on the customer side, both my senior boss and the VP were asking that I build a feature without actually understanding the problem being faced. 

Actions taken

Step 1: Understand the Core Problem

  • I told my CEO that while I understood the advantageous opportunity of adding additional features for our customers, there could be a different solution than building something new. 
  • I asked him to connect me to specific people on the customer side. I proceeded by meeting with internal stakeholders to know the problem. Then, I met with external stakeholders to understand the problem. 

Step 2: Prioritization Call with the Current Commitment

  • Alignment with product vision and strategy: Even though it isn’t always easy to do so, I had to stand up for the things that did not align with the product vision or strategy and say no. I had to spend time on it to make sure the feature matched the direction of the product. 
  • Once Off or Valuable Product Feature: I reached out to existing and potential customers to ask if they had similar problems they were interested in solving. If I heard positive responses, I felt I had done customer validation to prove the value of moving forward.
  • Cost/ Value Analysis: I discovered the high-level cost of building the feature versus the value it generates for our customers and the organization. I also applied the ‘cost of delay’ of the feature versus other features in the backlog to ensure its correct prioritization. 

Step 3: Alignment with Stakeholders

  • I organized a meeting with the CEO and other internal stakeholders to present my findings as aforementioned in Step 2. In doing so, I made sure that everybody was on the same page and agreed with the decision that the organization would solve this problem for the customers. 

Step 4: Implementation with Engineering

  • I set up meetings and began working with engineering to develop the feature for the customers using epics and stories. We broke things down into further technical work that we would have to do, then validated the problem with our customers, and started to plan a delivery. 

Step 5: Customer Validation with Demo

  • I organized demo sessions with the customer to validate and gather more understanding of how they would like to view this information. I tried to do this as early as possible so that I could work with engineering to make relevant changes. 
  • I had engineering and design attend these demos so that they could receive direct feedback from customers. 

Step 6: Delivery Planning

  • After the above steps, I iteratively developed features and provided a timeline schedule for both internal and external stakeholders.

Lessons learned

  • If you start implementing technical features without understanding the customer problem, you will probably jump too quickly into a solution space and therefore, never solve the core customer problem.
  • When we originally received the feature build request from senior management, versus when I did all backend work to compare it to what the customer actually wanted, the delivered result was worlds apart from the initial request. 
  • You have to tap into your product management skills to manage stakeholders internally, as well as, manage both internal and external expectations while providing commitment and a timeline. Only then, can you start to solve customer problems.

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