Feature Innovation vs. Product Innovation
April 19, 2021

Feature Innovation vs. Product Innovation

by Brian de Haaff

It takes confidence to be a product manager. You have to be certain that your product solves the right problems for the right people. This requires you to understand market needs, internalize user feedback, and develop real empathy for your customers. And you know there is always space to deliver something even better. So you constantly study the product and market to find opportunities to refine your offering. But are you going deep enough to really innovate?

Brilliant product managers scour the customer lifecycle for ideas to improve the product and create a better user experience.

If you are like many product managers, you focus your innovation efforts on what you can control — the actual components of your product. After all, you are the expert responsible for improving your offering. And while you can influence other internal teams such as marketing, sales, or support, you are not responsible for their work. So it makes sense that you operate with a product lens.

You probably analyze usage metrics, monitor your ideas portal, and consider feedback from the select customers you interact with. And these are all important data points, but they only tell part of the story. You also need to look beyond the features you sell.

Now you already have a product strategy that you believe in — so this is not about pivoting away from that. It is about mining for insights that can help you align opportunities with that strategy to add to your roadmap. How do you do this? Start by envisioning each stage of the customer lifecycle. The goal of outlining the customer lifecycle is to develop a more nuanced view of what customers are thinking and feeling at key moments.

This means expanding your innovation mindset beyond features and considering the Complete Product Experience (CPE) — the overall experience that customers have as they interact with your company. Achieving and optimizing a CPE entails thinking holistically about the user journey. You need to consider every touchpoint that people encounter, from when they first learn about your product to the systems they use to interact with your sales and support teams.

Marketing is typically the first touchpoint, but everyone in the organization should be included in the process. Turn to your colleagues in marketing, sales, and support to gather actionable information. Mapping out (and reflecting upon) the marketing funnel can lead to greater empathy — a prerequisite for delivering better solutions to customers.

Different perspectives can spur new ideas for your product — you might identify gaps in your knowledge or even discover new problems to solve.

To help you focus, center your questions around each stage of the lifecycle. These stages will differ by industry and what you are selling, but they usually follow a natural progression of attract, acquire, engage, retain, and advocate. I bet the answers you receive will lead to insights you would not encounter from product-related data alone. Here are some questions to ask your teammates to help spark innovation:

Attract

How do people first become aware of your product? Probably via messages crafted by your marketing team — ads, blog posts, and social media. Ask your marketing colleagues about the impact of different campaigns and why they were successful or not. Marketing metrics such as monthly web visitors and what content they consume can also illuminate a broader picture of who your potential users are and the specific problems they are hoping to solve.

Questions to ask the marketing team:

  • What content on the blog is most popular with visitors and why?

  • Which ads receive the most and least amount of clicks?

  • Which personas have you recently retired and which have you recently added?

  • What are our competitors doing to differentiate their products?

Acquire

How do you turn a prospect into a customer? The sales team might encourage qualified leads to take the next step by sending outreach emails or doing product demos to close a sale. Find out everything you can about what the sales team is doing to increase the conversion rate from lead to paying customer. Learn more about which prospects are most likely to make a purchase and what drives one-time consumers to become repeat buyers. You can use this information to spot opportunities for product enhancements.

Questions to ask the sales team:

  • What do you say to prospects to prove that the product is the right solution for them?

  • How can you predict whether someone will move from prospect to customer?

  • What questions or concerns do repeat buyers consistently raise?

Engage

How do you encourage people to use your product regularly? The support team engages closely with users pre- and post-purchase via demos, calls, or online chats. Questions and requests from customers are important indicators of potential areas to improve what you offer. If you can, sit in on customer calls or comb through live chat transcripts. Dissecting these interactions is vital to gaining fresh insights about how people use the product and the types of solutions they want in the future.

Questions to ask the support team:

  • How do new customers respond when you first check in to see if they need help?

  • Which knowledge base articles do you most often point people towards?

  • What would you change about the product to dramatically reduce support requests?

  • What other products and services do customers wish they could integrate with ours?

Retain

How do you increase customer loyalty and inspire repeat purchases? Ideally, the sale is just the beginning of a mutual and lasting relationship. Although you do not directly provide support to users, you can build a more lovable product by studying metrics such as customer churn rates. If your company surveys customers who cancel, read through the answers. Spotting surprises or repeat frustrations is the first step to uncovering unmet expectations or a larger problem you had overlooked.

More questions to ask the support team:

  • What have the most frustrated customers been saying in the last month?

  • Are specific groups of users repeatedly asking for additional training?

  • What are the three most common complaints about the product?

Advocate

How do you make people so happy that they begin to recommend you to others? Turning users into loyal customers is a collaborative effort — everyone in the organization must be open to generating and sharing ideas for how you can better serve customers. Of course, this requires frequent communication and transparency between teams. If you are contending with deep-seated organizational silos, do what you can to inspire more openness. Show your teammates that you respect their unique knowledge and are genuinely curious to hear their insights. This can encourage others to do the same.

Questions to ask marketing, sales, and support:

  • What drives people to write online reviews and make referrals?

  • How can we better share user data internally?

  • What do you wish you knew from the product side of things?

  • What is the most important change we can make to boost customer happiness?

  • How can we make the overall customer experience more cohesive?

Your teammates have valuable insight into what your customers need. Tapping into this collective knowledge is essential for product innovation.

Becoming more informed is just the beginning — now apply what you have learned. Compare what you hear from your colleagues with the existing ideas and requests in your backlog. Are there major areas of overlap? What themes are you missing or overlooking? You can add ideas for new features and then use your holistic understanding of the customer lifecycle to make smart feature-prioritization decisions.

Remember that whether they are prospects or sophisticated users, your customers are real human beings having an experience that requires your help. When you zoom out to expand your view of how they interact with your offering, it is easier to discover new angles of product innovation to pursue.

Where do you focus to drive the most customer value?

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Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 roadmap software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the adventure of living a meaningful life.

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