How to Use Customer Feedback to Build Truly Great Products
This post is an introduction to a discussion Brex co-founder/CEO Henrique Dubugras and Brex Head of Product, Zach Abrams will be giving at AWS Startup Day on April, 8 2021. Register here for free.
Steve Jobs was famously averse to listening to what customers said they wanted.
“People don't know what they want until you show it to them,” he said, adding that he never relied on traditional market research to inform product decisions. “Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page.”
Yet for the last century common wisdom has dictated that “the customer is always right”— a belief that’s changed very little since it was first coined.
So, what do you do? Should you consider the market and listen for the product the people have been clamoring for? Or should you gaze inwardly and trust the visionary within?
As with most things, the truth stands somewhere in the middle.
At Brex, applying a systemic methodology to customer feedback is built into our very foundation.
Brex is simultaneously invested in the well-being and successes of our customers, while also considering the next revolution just beyond the horizon. Our system of integrating customer feedback into our daily decisions is vital for our growth, and has roots in our own origin, which indeed started with an early pivot.
Brex was developed in Y-Combinator’s 2017 seed round, but wasn’t the pitch our founders Henrique Dubugras and Pedro Franceschi initially brought to the table. The original idea was a VR-smartphone collaboration (a guaranteed “dent in the universe”), which almost immediately tanked upon early feedback.
Seeking to save the fleeting YC opportunity, the team deeply considered their own strengths and experiences in Fintech, matched them with market indicators, and pitched the new product that would become Brex.
So, what did we learn early on?
- Iterate Rapidly
- Lean on Your Strengths
- Allow Flexibility to Pivot When Opportunity Arises
The evolution of Brex as a product and a company has been rapidly iterative, but not necessarily unique. We have integrated customer feedback and research into our decisions, gaining tremendous insight into how our product is used and how it can be improved, and continue to believe in the importance of continually soliciting feedback.
After all, the people you hear from in the earliest stages are vastly different from the customers who put you to the test in the marketplace. So, how exactly can you collect useful feedback?
1. Ask the Right Questions to the Right People at the Right Time
The best way to get the answers you need is to ask the right questions—but those questions change along the way! At the early stages, you need a solid proof-of-concept in order to determine if you're on the path to product market fit. At later stages, you may be more interested in fine-tuning UI details or in-app copy for example, than the larger philosophical questions you started out with.
As you progress and refine your product, you’ll want to hear from investors, subject matter experts, beta-testers, product mavens, and power users who bring personal experience and expertise and, potentially, followers. Finally, you need to hear from real customers, the people whose business and glowing enthusiasm will make your product a success in the real world.
2. Embrace Your First Customers: Friends & Family
If you’re lucky enough to have a network of family & friends to give you the truth and nothing but the truth, it’s always a great idea to take advantage of your established relationships to get blunt feedback early on.
Ask them: Does this meet a need? Would you use it? Then really listen to the answers. Yes, it can be hard to hear that the concept you’re so passionate about isn’t necessarily appealing to everyone, but feedback from the people you know is often untainted from competitive ambitions—you can usually trust what you hear.
It’s particularly helpful to reach out to friends or colleagues who are connected to the industry, or with whom you have a prior professional relationship. Many of your old contacts would love to hear from you!
Brex co-founder Henrique Dubugras suggests cultivating relationships with investors early on, and beyond simply asking for money. “We get to know people before asking for money. We build the relationship.”
3. Remember: No One Buys A Car Without a Test Drive
As you refine your product, you’ll want to focus on feedback from real people in the real world: beta-testers.
Perhaps unlike your immediate family, your ideal beta-tester actually has the problem you’re trying to solve, hopes your product truly enriches their life—and they want to help you do it! You’ll want both market-oriented and product-oriented feedback at this point, which doesn’t take your feelings into account. These people mostly just want the thing to work, and will tell you how you can make it better.
This feedback is a gift, which will help you with iteration and the direction of your business.
You’re Getting Tons of Feedback—Now What?
Decide what’s actionable. With your Minimum Viable Product (MVP), you'll want to keep your product as simple and streamlined as possible.
However, if you’re hearing the same feedback from multiple sources, you may have something substantial that needs immediate attention. If only one person flags a potential concern, you have to decide what to prioritize.
5. Assess Your Product Market Fit
Seek out advice from customer advisers and power users in your target market—Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) can give you insights that conventional customers cannot. Product evangelists and influencers can have outsize impact on customers, for better or worse. Seek a few in this cohort who may make for brand ambassadors, and leverage their network for more users and feedback.
6. Never Stop Seeking Feedback
You’re a founder—that requires vision, passion, and courage, and means you’ve got a drive to get right into the thick of things, learning every step of the way.
Product feedback can be brutal, but unless you’re prepared to move quickly, iterate as a matter of habit, and pursue the best possible version of your product, you’re up against tough odds in a climate that’s already hard enough.
What’s really going to set you apart are your judgement calls—what feedback is valuable, what you know about your product and roadmap that others don’t, and how to prioritize tasks and dismiss distractions.
The Customer is/NOT Always Right
Steve Jobs indeed touched upon a valuable insight—that the customer often rejects novelty because they don’t know what they don’t know, and doesn’t see what you see. Your job, as a founder, is to listen to your gut, but work with your brain.
Yes, it is vitally important to listen to customer feedback.
But If that feedback seems short-sighted, then it’s up to you to gaze beyond the horizon for the next revolution.