Gathering customer input is a critical part of a Product Manager’s job. Atlassian PMs have an ace up their sleeve: http://jira.atlassian.com. We’ve opened our internal bug tracking system to the world, and use that to help understand our customer’s needs.
You Want Me To Talk To How Many People?
Talking to every customer is easy when you’re a brand new startup with a handful of customers. It gets harder as your customer base grows, and if you’re a volume business like us – we have 15,000+ customers – it’s completely impossible to have a separate conversation with every customer. Your customers are going to talk about you – on forums, blogs, mailing lists, and Twitter. If you have a popular product, trying to keep track of all these conversations and distill them into engineering work would leave you with little time for anything else. For example: sleep.
One way of dealing with this is to open your internal issue tracker to the world. Unsurprisingly, we use JIRA , but you can use whatever suits you. Our customers can create issues “I want a whizzbang”, comment on them “It’d be cooler if it worked like that”, and vote on issues that are important to them. They can also watch an issue, which means they’ll get an email anytime an issue is updated – when someone else comments, when we start work, and so on. If you’ve ever worked with or on an Open Source project, this might sound familiar .
From a product manager’s perspective, I get some wonderful benefits: I can see the issues that matter most to my customers , I can view detailed descriptions of the problem they’re facing, and I can comment or email directly when I need more detail. I no longer need rely on sales people to help me understand a customer’s perspective.
With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility
As with all powerful tools, this data can be dangerous if not treated with caution. The people posting and creating issues are your most passionate users. This is a wonderful situation to be in, but you need to be aware that this is only a subset of your customer base. You’re not going to get much feedback from prospects and from people that aren’t in your current market.
Secondly, since you’re providing a forum for your customers to talk to you, you’d better be listening. Don’t create expectations you can’t meet – pay attention and explain why you’re doing A instead of B. If you don’t, this happens . As you can see, we’ve been far from perfect on this ourselves… but we’re working hard to get better.
Finally, if your developers don’t use the same issue tracker, it’s pointless. You’ll end up with one issue tracker full of customer requests that’s genially ignored, and a pissed-off customer base.
I Wouldn’t Work Without It
I’m based in Sydney, Australia. Our customers are in 130 countries around the world. There’s absolutely no way I could know as much as I do about our customers’ needs, wants, and desires as I do without an open issue tracker. Give it a go. It’ll change the way your company works, and your customers will love you for it.
July 15, 2009