With the tech industry’s new focus on efficiency, what effect will recessionary economic conditions have on product innovation?
This question and others were the focus of a fantastic 2023 Mega SKO session, “A Perfect Pairing: How Product and Sales Partner to Drive Product Innovation.” Atrium’s Jason Heidema served as the moderator, directing questions toward LeanData CEO Evan Liang, Salesloft CPO Ellie Fields and Candor IQ CEO Haris Ikram.
With extensive product experience at companies like Microsoft, Tableau, eBay, Salesforce and others, the panelists shared real-life examples and advice on productizing customer feedback, prioritizing ideas, and involving Sales teams in the innovation process.
Customers and prospects provide a wealth of product ideas, but feeding those ideas into your product roadmap requires a strategic approach.
“Ideas and feedback from customers are the lifeblood of product innovation,” said Ikram. However, the focus should be more on understanding the customer’s problem statement versus taking the suggestion verbatim. Focusing on the customer’s pain points is where you’ll find “unarticulated needs.”
Asking questions in specific ways elicits good product feedback. Fields recommended that sellers ask open-ended questions. Liang recommended asking questions that start with “why.”
- Why do you do things that way?
- Why do you spend time on this particular manual process?
Strategic questions can lead to answers that become a springboard for innovation. The ultimate goal is to keep ideas flowing, vet them quickly, and align them to your long-term vision.
Prioritizing Innovative Ideas
Combine a steady flow of ideas with limited engineering resources and decisions must be made regarding prioritization.
Liang pointed out that time spent on innovation will be determined by the particular stage of a company. Early stage companies with less customers will spend most of their time on innovation. As companies grow, the balance shifts to solving the immediate needs of existing customers and reserving a percentage of your product resources to innovation and testing.
At LeanData’s current stage, Liang follows an 80/20 rule, meaning that 20 percent of product team resources should be allocated to innovation. However, there are exceptions.
In the case of LeanData’s appointment scheduling solution, BookIt, once the product team saw positive results, more development resources were allocated toward this new innovation. Liang cautioned however that ending a product is much harder than starting a new one.
Ikram explained that for a new company, simply creating a better product than your competition is not good enough. You have to stand out and make the cost of change management worth it to the customer.
Fields added, “Picking the right is not an afternoon on a whiteboard. It’s months and months of discussion and evidence.”
Involving the Sales Team in Product Innovation
Whether conversations happen in internal forums or externally with customers, Sales teams live and breath customer pain points. A sales rep’s job is to discover and solve customer problems. Therefore, involving sellers in product innovation is key.
For companies like Atrium, LeanData and Salesloft who sell to Sales teams, having internal teams using their product becomes a kind of feedback superpower. In addition, Atrium includes an Account Executive and a Customer Service Manager on each research and development team to provide product feedback.
Involving sellers in product innovation can also combat the natural tension that sometimes occurs between Product and Sales teams. A product-sales collaboration puts the kibosh on age-old accusations like “Hey, you didn’t sell it well enough,” and “Hey, you didn’t build it well enough.”
Building a culture of feedback requires both parties to come to the table.
Innovation is Born of Necessity
Even as companies are turning away from the “Grow, Grow, Grow” mentality, the panelists agreed that innovation does not have to die.
Ellie Fields said, “When you have a big problem you are motivated to solve because you don’t want to lose a customer, that’s one of the best places to be. That’s when you really get creative. There’s no excuse to ever stop innovating.”
In every business environment, good and bad, companies are constantly trying to figure out how to generate more revenue. So in a down market, there’s healthy pressure on innovation. In fact, some of the best companies are born during downturns.
That means something brilliant will come out of 2023.