Using AI in Product Management, Moving to Software Value Streams, and Handling Customer Feedback when Everything’s Urgent
I’ve been in love with technology and all the things it can help us achieve since I was, like, 6 years old and saw my first computer. That was quite a while ago now, but I’m still amazed every day (except by blockchains, obviously). There’s been a lot of talk about how tools like ChatGPT are going to revolutionise everything and put us all out of a job. Time will tell on that one but, in the case of product managers, I’m still convinced we have a lot to offer - the need for vision and strategy is real! There are still way too many people out there with solutions searching for problems.
A message from our sponsor
This episode is sponsored by Skiplevel. Do you struggle with communicating with dev teams and understanding technical terminology and concepts? On episode 98 of my podcast, I hosted Irene Yu, founder of Skiplevel, an on-demand training program that helps professionals and teams become more technical in just 5 weeks... All without learning how to code. You can learn the knowledge and skills you need to better communicate with developers and become more confident in your day-to-day role with the Skiplevel program. You can use the referral code OKIP to support my work!
New Podcast Episode #1: Moving from Value Streams to Software Profit Streams
I first encountered Luke Hohmann via my friend Saeed Khan (check out my recent interview with Saeed here!) who pointed me in his direction during a discussion about SAFe. SAFe probably needs no introduction, and has assumed the role of horror movie villain in the eyes of many product and agile folks. Luke is a passionate advocate for, and contributor to, the SAFe framework. He also wants to help companies make money from their products, rather than just delivering ephemeral “value”.
We chatted about both those things and much more. Check the episode out on your favourite podcast app, or right here.
A software profit stream is the necessary evolution of a value stream
Agile folk talk about value all the time but how does that map to company priorities? There are structures & systems we need to use to turn "value" into profit & meet the company’s financial goals.
New Podcast Episode #2: The Rise of the Robots - How to Responsibly use AI in your Products
We’ve all heard of ChatGPT, the cutting-edge LLM (large language model) from OpenAI. As someone who’s worked in NLP-backed products before, and knows how disappointing the results can be, it’s genuinely impressive tech and massively fun to play with. But how clever is it really?
I decided to find out by interviewing ChatGPT version 4 for my podcast. I wanted to find out all about AI and large language models in general, how to use AI in our products, and the importance of explainability and ethics. Who better to ask, right? So I went through some questions, put the answers through a voice synthesiser and the rest is podcast history.
Check it out on your podcast app, or right here.
It's natural to be concerned about AI taking over the world
We've all seen the movies, the books and the horror stories. But there's also an incredible opportunity to change the world for the better. We need to be vigilant, and confront the concerns head-on.
My Product Management Videos
I’ve gotten a bit of a reputation for my subtitled product management film memes, and the list keeps on growing. I decided to put a proper list together and try to keep it up to date. Here it is!
Handling Customer Feedback when Everything’s Urgent
B2B product teams get feedback all the time. They get it from company leaders, sales teams, customer success and support teams. If they’re lucky, they might even get some directly from customers and users of their products. In a well-functioning product organisation, their job is to synthesise the best insights they can from all of these sources and come up with a viable product strategy. This is both an art and a science.
In less well-functioning product organisations, frontline support staff are constantly bombarded with feedback, unable to push back on any of them, and passing the vast majority through to the product managers because they don’t have a workaround or way to support that customer directly.
In theory, everyone can see that this is not sustainable, but it’s hard to push back and no one ever wants to tell a customer no. You start hearing things like “maybe we can squeeze this into the next sprint” or “let’s get in on the backlog and give them updates”. These responses diffuse the initial tension but leave an ongoing, lingering tension in its place.
There has to be a better way! Here are some steps I generally recommend.
Respect your customer and feel their pain
The problem that the customer has come to you with might not be the most important problem to you, but it’s definitely important to them. It’s important to listen and engage respectfully, both from a support and a product management team perspective. It’s important not to be flippant or dismissive. Ideally, and very much depending on the health of the account, you’ll use this as a chance to do some good old-fashioned Jobs to be Done work on them; what problem are they really trying to solve?
Remember that their importance classification might not match yours, though. And definitely don’t make any promises at this point.
Is it a blocking bug for functionality you already claim to offer?
Some issues are legitimate problems with your system, and should probably be fixed as soon as possible. If that important data export doesn’t work anymore because the tech-debt-ridden backend has finally fallen over, and customers can’t get the reports that they’re paying a premium for then you definitely need to consider this a high-priority problem.
But, that’s not to say that all bugs are high-priority. If there are workarounds or alternative methods to do this, either self-serve or with a little handholding from the support team, you might not prioritise this fix yet. And if the “bug” is actually a missing feature that no one said the product had then it’s not really a bug at all, it’s a feature request.
Work with support to provide workarounds and training
As per the previous point, if there are self-serve or guided workarounds that can be employed to enable users to be successful, these are valid tactics to avoid having to jump on everything like it’s an emergency. It may not be as convenient or slick, and you might want to revisit that in due course, but it’s definitely not urgent.
It is important, however, to arm support teams with all the information they need so that they can react quickly to these situations, either with canned responses and guides, or their own internal playbooks. If they’re spending time going back to square one every time a similar request comes in then they’re not spending that time wisely.
Everything else is a feature request and goes for periodic review
If it’s not a blocking bug, or it’s actually a feature request in disguise, then it’s a mistake to treat it as the highest priority thing, or to “just try to slip it in”. Support teams should log the details somewhere convenient and review all open issues with the product management team on a periodic basis. Maybe this is every couple of weeks, maybe every month. Whatever cadence works for you, depending on the volume that you have coming in.
This might cause friction with customers, so having a clear Service Level Agreement (SLA) written down is important, so that people know what the expectation is, and the support team can explain when a customer might receive a response. But, this isn’t a support ticket anymore, so the support ticket needs to be closed. Otherwise, you just end up with months-old undead support tickets in the queue.
And yes, sometimes you have to say no
I’ve worked with companies that find it impossible to say no, but also impossible to say yes. The middle ground is the worst of both worlds, constantly updating the customer with “not yet”, never solving the problem they’re complaining about, and ultimately satisfying no one.
If issues come up enough and are strategically aligned, giving customers an idea of the relative timescale (we’re hoping to look at this in Q4 but, in the meantime, you can try this, and hey what about this cool new capability?) is a good shout. If it’s really not getting done, make the decision, rip off the Band-Aid and have that uncomfortable discussion with the customer. Explain as much as you can, and try to concentrate on the good things you’re building and, hopefully, you can keep them happy.
That all sounds great, Jason, but what about when our biggest customer threatens to walk away if we don’t do some feature that only they want and isn’t aligned with our strategy at all?
Well… it depends (🤡). But, it does! I often say that product management is about principles and not dogma. The same applies here. We work for businesses, we have financial goals, and we have logos we want to retain. Ideally, that doesn’t mean that they get to bully you around all the time, but compromising these principles is a business choice. Don’t get too despondent as long as it doesn’t happen all the time.
That’s all, folks!
If you enjoyed this newsletter, please share it with your friends! And please do let me know if there are any topics you’d like me to cover in a future issue.
Writing this newsletter is fun, and I love to give stuff away for free. But, if you want to buy me a coffee, you can always buy me a coffee.
Thanks for reading One Knight in Product newsletter! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Those companies that find hard to say no - man, they're missing out. Saying no is the best feeling ever.