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I’m Tamara Niesen, I’m the Head of Product Marketing at Shopify Plus and today I’m going to write about being customer-obsessed at a product first organization.

Before we get into that, I want you to think about a time someone made your life better, or your life easier: what did that look like?

For me, it was a moment not too long ago, but before I get into it I want to lay the foundations. When I think about a product marketer I think of a typical type A person - very driven, highly impactful and might I say, very intelligent but probably stretched in multiple directions.

As product marketers, we're constantly trying to appease the stakeholders we work with. I think we'd all agree we're probably stretched thin. For my team, in particular, we find ourselves trying to prioritize what tasks we're going to do in a day because we can't possibly get to it all.

Onto the anecdote

For me personally, what this means is other things fall by the wayside. I don't have enough time in the day to get my work done, so how can I possibly manage that on top of getting to the gym, eating properly, giving my kids the attention they need? I can't do it all. How do I focus on my friendships? My relationships? It's impossible.

I think the people in my life started to notice this. Maybe it was by seeing my house, the piles of laundry, my lawn, the mile-high weeds when the snow’s not there, and my father in law actually just started to show up on Wednesdays on his day off and he started to cut the lawn, he started to fertilize it.

My mother-in-law started coming on Mondays, she started doing some laundry, doing some meal prep, spending some time with the kids. I didn't ask for any of this. In fact, if they had asked me if I wanted help, I probably would have said "No, thank you". After all, I type A, I got it, I can handle all this, I can't admit when I'm drowning.

What I realized from this was if we actually dig deep into understanding what people are struggling with, we can in fact understand what it takes to make their life a little bit easier. But that requires empathy. If we can actually understand what people need to make their life better, we can help solve their problems. I think this is what everyone wants. This is what organizations want. This is what people in the grocery store want, people shopping online, they're looking for efficiencies to add to their life so they can make more time for the meaningful.

That's what I want to talk about today. As product marketers, can we make our customers’ lives and our stakeholders’ lives easier so they can make more time for the meaningful?

How can we do this for them?

This is kind of what my lawn looks like, not quite this grand but it used to be burnt with mile-high weeds, and now it's beautiful. It's a simple problem but my father-in-law realized our life was really messy, so he thought about how he could take one little item off of our to-do plate, and he started just cutting our lawn.

Intimacy = empathy

So how can we do that for our customers? What's the secret ingredient here? How did they understand this? It was understanding beneath the surface level what was going on in our life. So what is the secret ingredient? It's intimacy.

By being close, digging below, and going behind the curtains in our lives, they were able to understand what our struggles were. They were able to be empathetic in terms of what we were facing, or potentially maybe even have a little pity for us. But at the root of it was empathy.

Empathy motivated them to find things that could help us make our life easier. Not this type of empathy.

That's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about this type of empathy…

...a familiarity, a closeness, possibly a friendship, but a genuine understanding where you sit down with someone and you listen, you're curious, and you ask "What is keeping you up at night?". That's intimacy.

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What does this mean in a product-led organization?

For us, it means we're absolutely laser-focused on building the best products possible. We can't do that unless we're actually building products our customers will use and ask, "How does it solve their pain points?". That requires us to be customer-obsessed. How do we do that? We can't possibly be customer-obsessed unless we are empathetic to their needs.

How do we become customer-obsessed? How do we get jiggy with our customers? We spend a day in their shoes, and we bring them together.

Getting customer-obsessed

A day in the life

Let's talk about a day in the life. What does this mean? Spend time with your customers, go on-site, spend time with the ones who are successful, the ones who are struggling, the ones who are about to churn; understand what it means for them to have success in their role. What makes it hard, what makes it tedious, what can make it easier?

This is hard - spending a day with your customers can be really complicated. For some of us, it might be hard because we don't have a vehicle to actually get to them. We don't have salespeople we're comfortable reaching out to, to say, "Hey, can you help me connect with this customer?".

Do you have a customer advocacy team you could reach out to? For me this was absolutely the easy part. Making a cold call to a customer was not an issue. For some of you, that might be really challenging but for me, the hardest part about going and spending time with a customer was, "How can I not mess up their day? My presence there might be a nuisance".

Actually what I realized as I practiced this, and when I went more often, was they wanted to be heard. I got there, I started asking questions, and it turned out they just wanted to vent, provide feedback, positive or negative, they just wanted to be heard.

In order to make sure we weren't wasting their time, for me personally I had to make sure I had intended outcomes for the day. I walked in with an understanding of what I was going to tackle and how I was going to approach my day so I could understand what their business problems are. Doing so gave me the confidence to engage with them more and have deeper conversations. I wanted to understand:

  • What type of business problems are they solving?
  • What does success look like?
  • What are they incentivized by?
  • Is it revenue?
  • Is it sales?
  • Are they looking to build a brand?
  • Are they looking to deliver a customer experience?
  • How are they measured?
  • What's preventing these problems from being solved?
  • Are there workarounds?
  • Are there inefficiencies or manual tasks keeping them up at night?

Maybe it's entering a new market or launching a new product to a new audience. Dig deep into everything, even things you might not think will be relevant, because you might just discover what would make their life just a little bit easier.

Let's say you have a group of econ managers like we might have or a group of admins, people actually living in your product, what could actually make their life a little bit easier or better and allow them to go home just a little bit earlier. Maybe there's an efficiency you can provide that will allow them to make more time for the meaningful and by virtue of doing that, perhaps they can actually impact to make the organization more successful.

Bring them together

Now you understand the challenges your customers are facing, now it's time to bring them together. What does this mean? This seems simple - get your customers in a room, form a community - seems easy in theory, but probably hard to execute because:

  • You might not have a budget for this.
  • Who would you invite?
  • Would they come?
  • What do you do with them?

We wanted to do this at Shopify, we wanted to create a community for our customers. But again, we didn't have a massive customer budget, or customer event budgets to bring them together so we thought we'd try by starting small.

How we did it

We invited founders, decision-makers, and people living within the product to join us and spend a couple of days together. We weren't sure if they would come not to mention the fact we were asking them to fly to Canada to a small town outside of Toronto, and spend some time with us. Would they come?

To start we lead with - why don't you influence the agenda? What would you like to see out of something like this? We made it about them and not about us. We asked them what they'd like to do and so we set up an agenda they created, which included:

  • Office tours
  • We had them spend time with our executives
  • They sat down and shared their concerns and their feedback - positive or negative
  • We hosted a night where we sat in a room and asked each of them where they'd failed the hardest. Some people told stories where they hit absolute rock bottom and spent years climbing out.

This has nothing to do with us, our product, or our organization, it was all about them. We spent time being vulnerable ourselves. We opened up the doors and met with those teams, but they also met with the teams that are building the product and they shared their insights and where we were failing them. It hurt, but it gave us so much insight into what they were feeling and we became vulnerable as well.

The outcome

And at the end of the day, they came to us and they said, "This is incredible. We actually feel like you are a partner. You're not just a software vendor, you actually believe in what you're doing. We believe in you. We love where you're going, we trust where you're headed".

Sometimes that meant even sharing things we weren't going to, we had some of our largest customers tell us what they wanted us to build and we said we can't, this is the direction we're going, and here's why. And so if we're vulnerable if we approach with intimacy, and we are empathetic, we can create trust and a two-way street with empathy.

Walking in a customer's shoes, bringing them together, I think we can start to see intimacy yields empathy. So as a product marketer, if you approach your customers with intimacy, you will yield empathy, but now what? What do you do with this?

Putting empathy to work

So pivot your minds to the organizations that build the actual products at your organization. Wait a minute, am I suggesting we get intimate with our product folks? That's probably a little bit uncomfortable. But we're responsible for gathering the customer insights, taking that information. and we should be sharing it with them. It's not always easy.

How do we get a seat at the table, let alone a voice or a vote, especially with the product teams? It sounds easy, we know it's part of our job, but it's not. These teams are heads down building things and for us to get their time is difficult not to mention we might not be aligned, we might have a different focus, we might be speaking a different language.

Aligning with product

This couldn't be more true at Shopify. Our teams are so heads down building exciting products, some of which don't even exist yet, that we didn't have strong relationships with them. They're so busy building what they're bringing us in at the launch phase and I think many of you can probably sympathize with this. We take this product that's been built and we're forced to figure out:

  • What's the value proposition?
  • How does it impact my audience?
  • And how do I ship it?

But it's already built so we're shoving a square peg into a round hole, it's very difficult.

How we did it

As part of how we tackled this, we started setting up one-on-one meetings with our R&D teams, the people we were aligned with, started to get intimate, understand what were the struggles they were facing, asking the same questions we were asking our customers:

  • What could make your job easier?
  • What's keeping you up at night?
  • What are you not able to tackle that would actually make you more impactful?

And understanding where we could actually insert ourselves and take on some of that work.

The outcome

By sharing that, understanding them, and having empathy, they started opening up. They started saying I need help doing user research, I need someone to go and sit with a customer and dig into this big problem set, because I don't have time, and so we started to do that.

Sure enough, we started being integrated into product meetings, involved earlier in the product development process, and we're seeing some success.

There’s a but coming…

Here's the huge caveat - it's not over. This is really a work in progress, we've just started this, there's a lot more work to do, but we're starting to have alignment. We're opening up the doors, in fact, we're even having them interview some of our candidates who are coming onto our team because it's really important to have that tight alignment.

How can you actually get more intimate with your product teams?

Add value - take work off their plate to a certain degree, but with things you can actually take on, so you can bring it to them and share it.

Create a first-team environment - I just mentioned having them sit in on interviews, do that. Do team-building outside of work - personality training, for example. What does good look like? Set up terms, rules of engagement.

Regular meetings and represent the voice of the customer - help them have the confidence to know they're building the right things for our customers.

Intimate delivery

Alright, we've created empathy with our customers and we've leveraged to get closer and inform and guide the product teams. Now what? Intimate delivery.

We need to close the loop and share it with our customers. We all do this, it's probably 90% of our job and it's easy, but have you actually asked your customers how they want to be communicated with?

Last year we actually announced a major product at one of our partner events that had tonnes of press around it, all of our customers knew about it, internal teams were super stoked. Fast forward a year later, I was in London presenting a roadmap to a customer and he asked me where this product was.

I realized, "Oh man, we're no longer building that". But we didn't close the loop, we didn't go back to our customers and say, "Hey, we've shifted directions, we decided not to build that because this will actually be more impactful to your business".

He said, "Well, if I'd known I would have just built it myself or I would have invested differently, but you didn't share that information".

I realized if I had just shared he would have been open with that. Customers are human too; they understand we're going to make mistakes, hopefully not many of them, but that we're going to shift directions and the point is they just need to know about it as early as possible whether it's good news or bad news.

Close the loop

Just last week we came across this again, when we had a product we were going to launch and we realized some of our most complex customers (in terms of their organization and structure and tech stack), if we released it to them, it would actually cause more harm than good.

So, we made a decision to hold it back. They were waiting for this for a very long time, we received tonnes of great feedback on it, but we knew it wasn't going to be great for the largest of customers, the ones that are arguably paying the most to be on our platform. We made a decision to hold it back and to communicate it given the feedback we received from the other customer.

This was a really difficult decision which I was very nervous about but we sent the email, we let them know we were holding back the release and why - it would actually hurt them rather than help them.

Two-way empathy = trust

The outcome? We actually received an email from a customer saying thank you so much for understanding this would actually create a lousy experience, so to speak, and they were appreciative of our level of transparency.

When we're open, we're transparent, and we're vulnerable. We can create a two-way communication, but also two-way empathy. There's trust now, they understand we're looking out for them in the best way possible.

I know if you deliver the information with your customers with intimacy and transparency it will open that two-way communication and trust. To do this, you need to understand how they want to be communicated.

How do your customers want to be communicated with?

Have you asked your customers how they want to be communicated with? How often? It's the golden rule versus the platinum rule.

The golden rule - do unto others as you want to be done to you. I don't think that actually applies when it comes to customers, I think we need to apply the platinum rule - do to them as they want to be done to them aka understand what makes them tick and go from there.

Don't just deliver the ingredients

I think especially in tech, and this may apply to other products as well, we tell customers what we're releasing, what the feature is, what the update is, but what does that mean to their business? How does it make their job or life easier?

Don't just deliver the ingredients, deliver the recipe:

  • Here's what it looks like
  • Here's the outcome
  • Here's why it affects you.

Understand in this process who needs to know this information. Perhaps there are people in the organization who need to know the nitty-gritty technical details, but some of them might just need to know a) it's here, b) this is how it works and, c) this is how it's going to make your life easier.

If you approach your customers with intimacy if you truly understand what their challenges are if you understand how you can make their life better, if you develop close relationships with those product teams and inform their work so they can create amazing products customers will actually use and love, you will create empathy.

Empathy will give you a seat and a voice and hopefully a vote at the table. By applying intimacy in everything you do as a product marketer, you will become customer-obsessed at whatever led organization you might be at, whether it's product, sales, revenue, investors, marketing, and by being customer-obsessed I promise you, this is what you will do for your customers.

Thank you.

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