As product managers, we solve problems for users - both new users and existing users. One of the best ways to get to know existing users better is to work alongside customer support.
Customer support teams interact directly with existing customers that are struggling. This means that customer support has a wealth of information about the challenges that existing customers face, and what kinds of solutions are more likely to satisfy the needs of existing customers.
Not only that, customer support teams are truly product champions - they promote the effectiveness of the product and actively soothe the customers who are most likely to churn. Therefore, better empathizing with customer support enables you to be a more effective product manager.
In more mature organizations, customer support teams have set processes for funneling feedback to product management teams. In less mature organizations, these processes may not exist. In either case, it’s valuable for you as a product manager to sit with customer support for at least a day to observe feedback firsthand - and it’s even more valuable for you to act as customer support yourself!
So how can you get started being on the front lines, and talk directly with existing users?
Joining the Front Lines with Customer Support
Coordinate with your customer support team, and ask whether they’d be okay with you serving alongside them for a day. They’ll usually say yes - an extra pair of hands rarely hurts!
Your goal is twofold: to learn about the challenges that your users are facing, and to learn how to work better with your customer support team.
After all, if you don’t build clear processes for having relevant questions come your way, you won’t be able to hear the voice of your customers! I’ve seen too many instances of complaints getting lost and never making their way to the product team.
While you work with your customer support team, let yourself be a part of the team. Don’t try to impose any process changes. Let the team train you as though you were a full new hire. Note down any processes that confused you - you’ll use this information for later reflection.
Which channels does your customer support team support? Phone calls? Emails? Chat? Video calls and screen shares? Social media? How does your customer support team manage all of these channels, and what challenges do they face in doing so?
Over the course of your day, note down the kinds of problems that customers are bringing to your team, regardless of whether they’re part of the product or not. For example, are there lots of problems around refunds? Or around pricing? Or around training?
As you note down these problems, check to see how your support team categorizes incoming problems, and whether they align with your categorizations. Why are they being categorized that way?
For example, if you work in B2B, you might see that complaints are categorized by client. You might see that complaints are organized by product feature, or by price tier, or by severity.
One key task that customer support performs is closing out complaints. How do complaints get closed? Which ones are deemed irrelevant or non-resolvable? Are there particular templates for particular kinds of complaints?
As you observe or pitch in, you’ll learn surprising things about how your product is being used, and which parts of the product confuse or frustrate users.
For example, I’ve taken phone calls before where people said that they couldn’t understand particular buttons, which meant that I needed to change product copy.
I’ve had live chats where users didn’t know how to change their profile information, which meant I needed to do a better job in exposing that functionality to them.
I’ve had screen sharing sessions where users asked for functionality that already existed. These go in one of two ways - either I point out where the functionality is and they’re satisfied (which means I have a discoverability problem), or I point out where the functionality is and they’re still not satisfied (which means my feature doesn’t actually solve their pain).
You might even find that users pair your product with other products, and that their complaints are actually about the other product rather than yours. That means there’s an interesting opportunity for you to figure out how to improve how these products interact with yours, or to pull those flows into your own product.
If you’re pitching in - notice the complaints that you’re struggling with. Why are you struggling? Is it due to lack of product documentation, or due to lack of customer context, or some other problem?
As you get into the rhythm of closing out complaints, take a more holistic view of the process. How long does it take to close out a complaint? When issues are closed, how are they tracked?
How often do issues get closed with no resolution? What happens when an issue isn’t resolved? How many unresolved issues are there, and how long have they gone unresolved?
How does customer support escalate issues to product? How is the product team currently acting on this information?
Once you wrap up your time on the front lines, be sure to thank your customer support team. They make your customers happy, and they are a crucial extension of the experience that your product provides!
Acting on Learnings
As a product manager, you cannot make informed decisions without information. And, customer support is one of the most critical channels for getting relevant information about your current users. Therefore, you need to ask questions about how to iteratively improve the connection between product and customer support.
First, look at how information flows from customer support to product. Are you getting all of the right information with the right context? Are you able to understand the problem that the customer is facing, and can you empathize with them effectively? If not, what sort of enhancements need to be made to the process?
Then, look at how information flows from the product team to the customer support team. For example, how often are features getting released without the customer support team knowing about it? That’s usually a key source of unresolved complaints - users might be struggling to use the new functionality, and the support team doesn’t have guidance on how to support them.
How does the product team inform the customer support team about workarounds for known issues? And how does the product team let the customer support team know about bugfixes, so that they can go back to relevant users to inform them that their problem has now been fixed?
Remember, it’s not sufficient to fix a problem - users need to know that their problem was actually fixed. I’ve been in situations where I fixed something, but my users continued to perceive it as broken, which was detrimental to my product’s success. Fixes without communication aren’t fixes at all!
Product managers work cross-functionally with stakeholders to amplify the success of their product. One of the most important stakeholders is customer support, for two reasons. First, they represent the voice of the customer and hold valuable customer insight. Second, they are the voice of the product for users.
To strengthen your product, one of the most impactful actions you can take is to serve alongside customer support for some amount of time. You’ll find learnings about your customers and about your organizational processes that will enable you to bring more positive impact.
Have thoughts that you'd like to contribute around customer support and product management? Chat with other leaders around the world in our PMHQ Community!
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