The Two Most Important Words for Product Managers to Use

What does your sales team think of you? Does customer success enjoy their conversations with you? Or do you feel animosity and tension with them?

And what about with customers?

How about the squeaky wheel who sends in feature requests regularly, or the enterprise customer with contractual promises?

Product management is about relationships.

One of the biggest mistakes I see otherwise good product managers make is not managing internal and external stakeholders well.

Rather than building collaborative relationships, where everyone feels like they’re on the same team heading in the same direction, they sow seeds of tension.

As a product manager, any communication issues fall on you. It’s your job to build bridges, even on challenging terrain.

You can do that through a variety of tactics:

  • Product advisory boards, and regular check ins with key customers.
  • Peer 1 on 1s with key sales, customer success, account management, and other department leaders.
  • Regular updates, training, and collaboration on collateral creation for new and updated features.
  • Following the timeless of advice of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People.

Throughout those conversations, both internally and externally, there are two words to always remember: “Not yet.”

Let’s dive into the nuance of how 4 letters can make such a big difference…

“Not Yet”: The Two Most Important Words for Product Managers to Use

Remember when you were a little kid and you wanted something and you asked your mom or dad? How did you feel when they said “no”?

Chances are you were pretty unhappy.

We’re not so different when we grow up.

Just say no…to saying, “No.”

As a product manager, when you tell customers and colleagues, “no”, it creates problems for you now and in the future.

No is denying what they want.

No makes them feel unheard.

No is a wall between you and them.

And most importantly, no is the end of a conversation.

Where do you go after you say, “no, we’re not doing that”? You can possibly explain why, but the other person is likely already thinking about how they can either convince you to change your mind or tuning you out in frustration.

The Power of “Not Yet”

Four letters. That’s all that separates “No” and “Not yet”, but in reality it makes all the difference.

Not yet is, “we might do that down the line…”

Not yet is, “I hear you, but…”

Not yet is hope.

And most importantly, not yet is the start of a conversation.

“Not yet” builds empathy

If you’ve ever learned about the power of using “and” instead of “but” in conversation, you know that a simple change in word choice actually leads to a larger transformation.

By changing the word you use, you change the entire nature of your discussion the rest of the way.

When you say, “not yet,” it lends itself to explaining why. This is powerful because it helps them understand the choices you’ve made.

When it’s an internal stakeholder, explaining why can help them see the other priorities. I’ve lost count of the number of times that once I’ve explained what we’re doing right now already they suddenly are willing to wait on their request; you may even be working on something important to them.

Meanwhile, with customers, it’s an opportunity to build excitement and engagement. Maybe you can’t give them what they asked for right away, but you can tell them about some other things in the pipeline.

Often, a couple of the things you’re doing are also important to the customer. You can then offer them the opportunity to provide feedback on the feature as it’s developing, or early access. Either way, it ends up feeling like they’re coming away with something, even if it’s not what they originally asked.

Show your work.

A key part of all of this is that you’re showing your work to others. You don’t need to explain the whole roadmap, but even a small snippet can help people see there’s a solid foundation to the decisions you’ve made.  It also demonstrates the hard work and rigor of the product team:

  • Data driven: Good PMs know their numbers, so you can explain to them how the feature they asked for may have a much smaller impact than the current features you’re working on.
  • Customer focused: Whether you have an enterprise contract with deadlines due in 30 days, or are finally delivering on the #1 most requested feature, showing that what you’re doing is backed by real customer insights shows you’re a PM that listens to customers.
  • Strategic: Great PMs see the big picture, and help others see it, too. Concisely explaining strategy comes with practice, so use these “not yet” conversations to practice clearly explaining how the new API opens up thousands of leads a month, or how the onboarding improvements will drive more revenue to hit key company goals.

When you show some of your cards to your colleagues and customers, you help them understand your decision making process. While they may not always agree, they’ll often respect the decisions you’ve made a lot more than when all they heard was, “No.”

In my experience, when you show you have data, strategy, and customer insights backing up your decisions and bets, your colleagues and customers will trust you. Just like they expect you to trust them to do their jobs well, they’ll see plenty of evidence to believe in you as well.

Save your relationships!

This may seem like a small thing, but I can tell you from experience,  it matters a lot. No may feel like the expedient way to handle requests, but it comes with a long term cost.

Over time, saying “no” leads to resentment and may sour relationships. People you want to partner with to make launches successful and for everyone to hit their numbers suddenly avoid you, except when they want to demand and override your No’s. They may even try to go around you and talk straight to a designer or engineer to get what they want.

And since you represent the product team, it can even lead to inter-departmental drama and rivalries. Rather than engineering and sales being partners, they become enemies, with each side criticizing the other. I’ve seen and heard it too many times, and it’s really the fault of product managers on those teams for it becoming like that.

You can avoid being that kind of cautionary tale by taking the time to regularly communicate with other teams, stakeholders, and key customers. When you meet and talk with them, remember to use “not yet” so those relationships flourish and they understand your decisions.

Never underestimate the power of using the right words.

How to Write Product Updates that Delight Customers & Reduce Churn

If you launch a feature and you don’t tell anyone, did you really launch it?

Okay, maybe the “tree falls in a forest” analogy isn’t perfect, but you probably get the point: you need to tell your customers when you make improvements.

But how do you do it in a way that customers will care?

I’ve seen dozens of ways for people to do product updates over the years, including these common ones:

  • Popping up in app to tell them (think Intercom-style, or a product tour)
  • Posting on your company blog
  • Emailing to everyone who has an account
  • Passing it to sales or account management to tell customers
  • Updating a change log that lists all updates over time
  • Praying they stumble upon the changes

Of all of those, my favorite is the semi-regular email to customers.

I like it for a few reasons:

  1. Flexible medium: I can write and include images and gifs to clearly show what’s new.
  2. Non-interruptive:  Unlike pop ups in app, they can read this when they have time, instead of dismissing it when they’re in the middle of something in your product.
  3. Reminder we exist: People get busy. You are not the center of their universe. An email about product improvements can get people back into your product they haven’t logged into in a while because they see you in their inbox.

For the past nearly 10 years, I’ve been sending product updates at the SaaS companies I’ve worked at and founded. Because of the structure I follow, I’ve seen it help build stronger relationships with customers, reduce churn, and help everyone feel more product momentum.

Today, I’ll show you my process so you can experience those benefits with your customers, too.

 

How to Write Product Updates that Delight Customers & Reduce Churn

First and foremost, credit where credit is due. There is an AWESOME Tweetstorm from Steven Sinofsky on this subject you should go read now:

Okay, so now that you read his 20 tweets, you understand why this is important, and the pitfalls to avoid. Now, let’s talk about how to actually write one.

A few assumptions:

  • You talk to customers: If you talk to customers, all of this is easy to do. If you don’t, not only is this very hard to do, but you are a disgrace to product managers everywhere. Worst of all, your designers and engineers are rolling their eyes at you. Jump here on my blog to reform your ways if you need to start doing so.
  • You’re data informed: Quantitative numbers are not everything, but they’re very important. They help you understand how many people are affected by a problem, the total addressable audience for a feature, and measure the impact of a change. Having these numbers is key for both internal buy in and explaining things to your customers.
  • You have buy-in: The bigger your company, the more stakeholders you need to manage. It’s good to get things done, and it’s also good to keep people in the loop who also interact with customers or care about this. Use your best judgment on who may want to see what you’re doing. If you get resistance, try to get support for an experiment of doing them.

If you’ve done those 3 things, you’re ready to apply these tactics to make an awesome product / feature update.

1) Start with a “Thank You”

Every product update I take the time to write out a list of thank yous to customers that took time to report bugs, share feedback, answer questions, or do customer development interviews.

This costs you *nothing*, but can mean a lot.

First, you’re letting people know you were really listening. It reminds them that their input matters and the time they took out of their day to email you, hop on a call, or beta test a feature was worth it.

It also creates a reinforcing loop:

  • You thank someone for feedback.
  • Others see that you thanked people for feedback and it gets them thinking about giving feedback.
  • Coworkers see their colleague’s name and talk about it, think about using the product more, and consider giving feedback as well.
  • Next month, the list grows, and you have more people to thank.

Immediately after I give thank you shout outs, I also then remind people just how easy it is to give us feedback, so I teach more customers what to do:

Remember: You want a product people LOVE or HATE.

Silence is your enemy.

Make more people care by letting them know you’re listening. The feedback and problems they share help you build a better product, and improve adoption throughout a company or network.

 

2) Tell your story

Every product has a mission and vision. As a product manager, you need to understand and lead that vision. It should impact everything you do, including what you write in your product updates.

The best way to manage expectations with customers is to guide them on the journey of your product.

Ask yourself questions like:

  • Where is our product heading? What is the big picture?
  • Why are we heading in that direction?
  • How does our direction help our customers be more awesome?
  • What won’t we be doing? Why not those things?

As you explain each update and change, you should keep those questions in mind. Make sure what you tell people aligns with that goal.

For example, with Lighthouse, our focus is on making managers great. We know they’re busy, so things like speed and performance in our product is as important as a new, shiny feature. We need to work reliably for them.

That meant that when we had a product outage due to Mandrill failing, we decide to switch providers to Postmark. Here’s how we framed that:

tell a story to your customers

Obviously, this is a very simple version of a story. For new, big features, there’s *a lot* more I would speak to explaining how we think it fits their workflow, why it matters, and how it fits into everything they do.

 

3) Explain your reasoning

While telling your story is important, it’s also helpful to have a rational side to it. What was the motivation for this decision?

If you’re doing product management right, you already wrote a product spec or product thesis that explains to your internal team why you’re choosing to work on this feature next. You should translate that same quantitative and qualitative data to a version that makes sense to share with your customers.

As Sinofsky points out, if you don’t give people a reason, they’ll make one up. So plan to give them a good one.

A feature can be commonly requested, but you don’t build it because it doesn’t fit your vision and mission. A feature can also be less commonly requested, but only because people can’t use your product until you build an integration they would need.

Either way, you would want to explain your decision. Tell people why you chose this of all the things you could do.

Maybe you have a Slack integration, and with all the hype and press around Microsoft Teams, you realize it makes sense to allow MS Teams users to do what you already allow in Slack.

Or maybe your company is moving up market and that means building some permissioning, and security is now more important. Your SMB customers may not be as excited, but if you can help paint the picture that, “one day your business may grow and you’ll want to use these, too” can give them a better feeling about it.  Explaining the upmarket move can then also signal to your handful of current, big customers that you are investing more in what matters to them.

If you just say, “We built some new security features” with a list of bullets, you give your customers no idea why.  Do better than that.

 

4) Paint a picture of the future

Your product update is a snapshot in time. It’s one step in an endless journey towards (or keeping) product-market fit.

As important as it is to explain what you built and launched this time, you also should paint a picture for the future. Help people understand and anticipate what is coming.

The key here is to strike a balance. You do *not* want to publish your whole roadmap; it can change too much, and you want to give yourself some flexibility.

At the same time, if people know how you’re thinking and what you’re working towards, they can help you in a variety of ways:

  • Volunteer to give feedback: If they know you’re building things they’d like, they’re more likely to reach out.
  • Good customers stay: Most people hate switching products. If they feel like you’re heading in the right direction, they’ll give you time to fix problems and get there.
  • Tell their friends/colleagues: When a product “just gets me”, you’re much more likely to rave to friends about it. By telling your story for features and where you’re heading, it builds excitement and anticipation for your best fit customers.

give a teaser of coming attractions

Strike the right balance on what you share

Giving just the right amount of detail on the future is definitely a learned skill. However, as a starting point, I like to do the following:

  • Talk about things under construction: If you’re already committed to and building something it’s pretty safe to hint at it by showing a small snippet, or explaining what it will do.
  • Focus on themes: Rather than listing the 27 things you hope to do (and could change), tell them thematically about your goal or vision. This could be like saying we’re going to “allow you to do key activities on your phone you told us are important when on the go” instead of listing mobile app features.

 

5) Seek feedback and input

You should never send something product related that is “no reply”, and this is especially the case for product updates. If people have something to say about what you built, make it as easy as possible for them to share their thoughts.

You can then use this to also recruit people for future customer development based on the upcoming features you’re going to launch, or to get people to take a survey.

The more you show you’re listening and acting in their interest, the more engaged your customer base becomes.

Creating a virtuous feedback cycle

When I joined KISSmetrics, they were getting about 10 pieces of customer feedback a week from our feedback box in the product. Unfortunately, no one on the team was replying to those for a variety of reasons.

Through being more customer driven, replying to those messages, and sending notes like I’m outlining today, we were able to boost that to getting over 50 pieces of feedback (5X) a week while the customer base grew about 2.5X. This helped us catch and fix bugs faster, and more easily get insights from our customers.

The easier you make it to give feedback, and the more you respond and act on what you receive, the more feedback you’ll get from customers.

Before long, you’ll find it’s really easy to find and recruit customers for new feature feedback and customer development.

 

one size fits none, be specific

Adapt this to fit your business and audience.

With my startup, Lighthouse, we sell to managers. They’re generally in an office and live in email. This makes an email update great.

Once a month is a good cadence for us to send an update out as it’s a couple sprints, and usually enough to fill up a good update.  It also is a frequency that resonates with our audience as they do a lot of their projects in monthly increments.

Your business may be different, so consider changes to what I’ve outlined here like:

  • Message on another platform: Can you tell them in Slack, via a small text, or somewhere else they’re most likely to check?
  • Tweak the frequency: Update your customers as often as you think fits your update cadence and your customers want them. More, shorter updates, or fewer, longer may make sense.
  • Use another format: If you’re a video platform, then video updates probably are better. If your business includes a really popular podcast, maybe a quick audio clip.
  • Show your personality: This is a huge opportunity to build your brand, so put some of your company’s personality into it. If your company is nerdy, be nerdy, if it’s playful or irreverent, be irreverent, and if you’re really formal, then your update should be, too.
  • Involve the right people: Who has the strongest relationship with your customers? They should be in the loop on this. For example, if you have account managers it may be best to have them get the word out, at which point you could draft something they can copy/paste and adapt.

The best way to get to the right format and approach for your customer is to listen and iterate. Get the right people involved in your company and start trying things.

As you build the habit of doing this, you’ll see more of what works and doesn’t so you can work towards getting messages like this from your customers:

 

How do you update your customers about changes and improvements to your product? Share your favorite tactic in the comments so everyone can learn.

Calming the Angry Elephant: How to Communicate with Customers During a Product Crisis

So you have a crisis. Your product went down. Your site or reports froze.

Emails weren’t sent…or maybe they did…100 times instead of once.

Whatever it is, your product didn’t do the job your customers hired it for.

When disaster strikes, you have two choices: Hide from it, or face it down.

Hiding will cost you.

How you react will directly affect your customer churn or renewal rates, what your customers will do (do they tweet about it? Do the offer to help?), and the morale of your team.

That’s why, if you’re the product manager, and there’s an issue with the product you’re in charge of, you need to take the lead to help communicate with your customers about it.

You can’t often do much to help engineering do their jobs, so helping with communication internally and externally can be really valuable to reduce distractions for them and show you’re doing your part.

You also then build a culture of facing problems down directly.

My team knows that if anyone finds a bug or problem, the first question will be, “who is affected?” followed by, “can you get me a list of their names and emails?” (More on this shortly).

Today, I’ll share how you can lessen the long term damage, and even earn some good will in a tough situation with your product.

What PMs should do first in a Product Crisis

Ever had a wave of upset customers mad about your product? I’ve been there.

I first learned about dealing with such issues when I was at KISSmetrics. We ran into some serious tech debt / scaling issues that led to angry tweets, lots of support tickets, and even AdWords run against us by our cutthroat competitor, MixPanel:

While there’s nothing you can say or do that will save you if the problem continues, the right message at the right time can buy you time to address it, and relieve a great deal of tension.

Here’s how to approach it:

1) Communicate internally

This is one of those times all those soft skills of being a product manager come into play:

  • Your customers are stressed: They can’t use your product as intended for the reason(s) they pay you for it.
  • Your product team is stressed: They’re scrambling to understand and resolve the issue.
  • Your company is stressed: Everyone from sales to customer success to executives will hear about a big issue. And they often won’t be able to do anything about except add more pressure to the situation.

As a product manager, you need to step up your game and work to communicate with everyone calmly and effectively.

Be a source of calm…

The first thing you need to do is relax. As leader, it’s important to be calm and under control. Understanding the problem and having a plan should give you reason to be confident when communicating internally, then later externally, about the problem.

Don’t understand the problem? Then, that’s priority one.

Ask the basics:

  • What happened?
  • Who is affected?
  • Why did it happen? (If you can get to the root cause)
  • Is it ongoing or are things back up and running?
  • What is the estimate to a fix?

If you know those basics, you can help your team by starting to communicate with those that need to be in the loop. Those can be people like the sales and customer success teams you interface with, and of course any other key stakeholders.

From there, you can start looking at how to communicate with customers.

2) Use the right level response for the size of the problem, and the size of your company

This advice applies most to small startups and businesses (1-50 employees). As you grow, you’ll likely have a more resilient product, a full marketing team to support you, and set policies to follow.

However, regardless of your company’s size, it’s very beneficial to understand what your plans would be in the event of a crisis. By the time something happens, it’s a lot harder and more stressful to come up with it on the fly.

You also want to scale your response to the size of the problem.

Find out who is affected. Only send a response to them, especially if it’s a small group

I like to send personal emails (or work with account managers/customer reps) for small groups affected. Then, for bigger groups, I’ll ask an engineer for a list of every customer affected with their name and email in CSV. That makes it easy to quickly import that list into your favorite email marketing tool to fire off such a note.

tell your boss about the product crisis

3) Always keep your boss in the loop

Finally, use your best judgment and run any plan like this by your boss.

Whether that’s the CEO, a product leader, or a founder, they’re going to have opinions, thoughts, and concerns as your product crisis unfolds. And if you’re not updating them, they’re going to ask you, or go bug your team for updates.

While we’re focusing today on communicating with your customers, many of these same approaches can also help in managing up with your boss.

As important as it is to update them, it’s also a good idea to get their approval for sending the kind of note we suggest. They can help with a quick proof read of your email before sending, so it fits the desired tone, and make them feel a part of the solution, too.

angry customers

How to Communicate with Customers During a Product Crisis

When reports started getting slow at KISSmetrics, at first we hid from the issue. We assumed it was just some edge cases, and maybe it would go away. (It didn’t.)

Instead, it got worse.

Finally, we decided we needed to say something, so our VP of Product and Engineering wrote an email we sent to customers.

And then we braced.

We didn’t know how customers would react, and so we hoped for the best and prepared for the worst.

Fortunately, the immediate response was incredibly supportive. Suddenly, the elephant in the room was gone, and we could focus on improving things for customers without fear of how they’d react.

Since then I’ve used the same approach, and learned a few key additions that have helped me with products I’ve worked on and a number of my friends do the same.

Here’s a few keys when you need to write the note:

show empathy to your customers and their situation

1) Show empathy

If your product matters, which if people buy it, it must be important to them, then showing you appreciate its importance can help a lot.

Speak to the use cases you know the problem impacts like “your ability to have those numbers for your weekly marketing meeting” or “your ability to properly prepare for your 1 on 1s with your team members.”

If you don’t know how your customers use your product, then it’s time to figure it out. Pay attention to what people are quite possibly screaming to support about that they really need, and speak their language.

When people feel heard and understood, they are more likely to be calm and understanding. When you show empathy to them, they’re more likely to show empathy for you.

Put this early in your note to customers.

self deprecation is an asset here

2) Call yourself every name in the book

This isn’t a joke. You’re showing that you know it’s bad, and you need to do better.

By bravely standing up and admitting a mistake or error happened, you show leadership.

I learned this from Dale Carnegie’s leadership classic, How to Win Friends and Influence People:

“Say about yourself all the derogatory things you know the other person is thinking or wants to say or intends to say – and say them before that person has a chance to say them.

The chances are a hundred to one that a generous, forgiving attitude will be taken and your mistakes will be minimized.”

It may seem counter-intuitive at first, but if you try it, you will be amazed at how well it works.

Caution: You win and lose as a team

Do not throw any team members under the bus. Stick to we’s and group/company wide acceptance of responsibility. Emotions will be running high as your engineering team works hard to fix it, so the last thing you want to do is to pile on more stress or frustration by calling them out.

And even if say a now-fired engineer deleted a database, or someone made a big error, your company still bears the responsibility; your company hired the wrong person, or failed to have effective safeguards to prevent such an incident. Finger pointing gets you nowhere.

Importantly, by calling yourself out, you save your customers from having to. This can prevent many angry tweets, or a large, public outcry.

Best of all, when you do self-deprecate over an issue, as Dale Carnegie teaches, there’s really only one thing left for them to do: be magnanimous and forgive you. “Oh it wasn’t *that* bad. I’ll live.”

we have a plan

3) Talk about what you’re doing about it

This is a great excuse to work with your engineering team to understand the technical side of your product better. When they’re not in full crisis mode, or they take a break, sit down with someone on the team to get a layman’s term explanation of what happened.

From there, you convey however much you and the team are comfortable stating about what happened, and then most importantly, you look to the future on what you’re doing about it.

You see this a lot in the world of engineering products. They’ll actively tweet out about an issue and then even share the post mortem publicly for other engineers to see what they learned.

While that may be overkill or not relevant to your market, explaining what you’re doing to prevent the issue going forward definitely is important.  Doing so builds confidence that this will be an isolated incident, or you can warn them, “We’re making this fix now, and a broader fix will take X weeks, so let us know if you experience issues in the coming days.”

This is the best way to end your note to customers about your product crisis.

 

Putting it all together.

Here’s an example note I sent to customers in 2017 when we accidentally emailed people 7 prep emails in the morning for each of their 1 on 1s that day. For some people that meant a busy day of 1 on 1s caused them to be sent 50+ emails in just a few minutes.

example product apology note

Now, this isn’t the biggest failure ever, but it was an opportunity to set the standard we own up to mistakes they’ll certainly notice.

And the response was exactly as we hoped:

apology note response example 1 apology note response example 1

Our response looked personal, but with a little planning, it was all automated and totally scalable to the size of that issue and others like it.

You can see a similar message here:

 

The bigger the issue, the more the detail you’d put in the note, and the more you’d be self-deprecating. Use your best judgement and fit the culture of your company for how to specifically frame it.

Update! Buffer has a fantastic example of this with a recent issue:

 

 

 

 

I also like a couple things extra they did here:

In addition to covering the basics we outlined in this post, there’s a couple extra things that the note does that are worth calling out:

  1. It’s from the CTO: Showing this issue was given attention all the way to the top of the organization.
  2. They thanked their customers: When someone helps out, it’s always good to thank them for their contribution.
  3. Reinforce behavior you want: By continually setting an example and stating how they like their customers to act, it helps reinforce customers should behave that way. This is why it’s better to say, “Thanks for your patience” instead of “Sorry for bugging you.”

Note: This is not a silver bullet.

In the end, this approach will buy you time and earn some good will. It helps you be a part of the solution with your team and sets a good precedent for communicating with your customer transparently about issues.

However, much like in baseball, “3 strikes you’re out.”

If this happens too often, no amount of well crafted apologies will save you.

You have to fix the issue and do better going forward, and then it will be a distant memory in your customers mind, and you can get back to making more awesome stuff.

How has your product team handle crises? Would love to hear your stories of what’s worked in the comments.

 


>>> Are you passionate about building great products & live in New York City?

I just moved to NY and am looking to connect with other people that love building great products to share tactics, fresh ideas, and cool products.

Interested? Reach out on Twitter (I’m @Evanish) and let’s get coffee.

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