When it comes to being customer-driven, there’s a difference between treating people right and doing everything that people ask.
A key thing to remember is that customers — the people who pay to use your product — should be central to everything you do. It sounds simple, but when you have free users in addition to paying customers (like us), things get a bit trickier.
Of course, you absolutely need to listen to your paying customers first. After all, they’re the people who have found so much value in your product that they’re willing to pay for it. (And in many cases, they’re happy to being paying for it — just like we’re happy to be paying for Slack, since we find it so valuable to our business.)
But at the same time, you don’t want to ignore the feedback you’re getting from your free users … they could become customers someday. So the experience they have with your product matters as well.
So what ends up happening? You try to make everybody happy and soon get overwhelmed by an avalanche of feedback.
Knowing what to listen for (and who to listen to)
One of the underlying issues here is that the feedback you get from your free users is usually pretty different from the feedback you get from paying customers.
Paying customers are typically more familiar with the ins and outs of your product, so they tend to ask if you can make things faster, or make things easier to do.
If you were using the Spotlight Framework for processing customer feedback, these customer requests would fall into the user experience category.
For example, a customer might ask something like, “How do I get this part of your app to load faster?” Or they might say something like, “I tried to use this part of your app but couldn’t figure it out.”
Free users, meanwhile, skew more towards the product marketing category with their feedback. These users are sometimes just scoping your product out, seeing if it could work for them. So they’ll ask questions like, “Can you sync with this platform?” or “Can I host this myself?”
In some cases, a sales rep will come to me and say, “Elias, I have this big potential customer on the line, and they’re going to buy … but only if we add this new feature to the product first.”
Whenever this happens, my response is always the same: “We’ll build the feature … but only after they become paying customers. Because as a customer-driven company, we need to focus on the needs of our existing customers first.”
The way I see it, if someone doesn’t find value in your product as it is, they’re probably not a good fit for your product. Having a sale hinge on adding a specific feature is never a good move — because at that point, solving for the sale and solving for that individual use-case becomes more important than solving for your existing customers.
So when processing feedback, you need to take into account not only what you’re hearing, but also who you’re hearing it from.
In most cases, the feedback and feature requests you get from paying customers — people who use your product day-in, day-out — should be given more weight than the suggestions you get from free users who have just signed up.
Ultimately, we try to prioritize what features we build based on customer feedback and what we’re hearing the most from people. When more and more people start requesting the same thing, and those requests start happening more and more frequently, we know there’s a real issue that we need to address.
It just so happens that the people who make these shared requests tend to be paying customers, since they’re the ones who know better than anyone what could be improved upon. So they all end up finding the same weak spots in the product and telling us about them.
Addressing those weak spots and solving problems for customers as soon as they appear is how you “wow” your customers. And it’s how you make your product sticky.
And it’s how you avoid churn.
But where does that leave us with free users? Do we just ignore them when they give us feedback, or when they request new features?
Here’s my recommendation: Don’t ignore them, ask them questions.
So if a free user tells you that the product needs X, ask them, “Why do you think the product needs X? What would you use X for?”
And then you can dig deeper: “Are you currently using another product for X? Are you having problems using it? Where are you stuck?”
At the end of the day, you’re going to have to say “no” to a lot of these feature requests … but that doesn’t mean you have to end the conversation you have with a free user at a “no.” Treat it as opportunity to do customer research. Ask questions.
While you can’t always promise them you’ll do what they’re asking, you can always show them that you’re listening.