Data exchange

Outbound product management: How to better engage with your customers

One of my favorite movies, Field of Dreams, features the unforgettable quote, “Build it and they will come.” And while my sandlot-playing younger self would like to believe that to be true, my product-managing adult self knows the fallacy in that statement.

Product teams that engage with customers gain a more comprehensive understanding of their needs. Those teams then build better products. Seems obvious, right? Every good PM I’ve learned from, worked with, and coached knows this. Yet, most product teams I’ve worked with have taken years to establish even a baseline standard for how they engage with customers. 

At Flatfile we’re happy to be part of a broader trend in product teams that have an increasing set of customer-facing interactions and obligations. Outbound Product Management (OPM) is the process of gaining a greater understanding of the market and your product’s role in it by meeting with and discussing customers’ in-depth needs. OPM takes customer feedback to the next level, developing strong strategic relationships with customers to build features that satisfy a select customer group, which can then be applied to the broader customer base.

OPM poses two key questions: 

  1. How can you extend your product in a way that solves more holistic problems? 

  2. Where does your product plug into the value chain for your customers? 

Answering these questions will help you understand how you’re delivering value and identify additional opportunities to deliver even more.

Three key areas of outbound product management 

At Flatfile, we relate product management to customer outcomes. This enforces tight alignment with the needs of our market. Building our roadmap from an outcome-based perspective also democratizes the process: anyone in our business and any of our customers (or prospects) can describe what they need to accomplish. Capturing those needs directly from a representative sample of customers and keeping those customers involved throughout the product development cycle is the essence of outbound product management.

With OPM, we’re able to simultaneously define scope, priority, and commercial viability. Our strategy consists of three focus areas.

Journey Mapping is a process that leads to a shared view of product success that transcends a contract. We use a tool called UserBit, but even a simple slide deck will do. We train our sales and success teams to devise these maps with the goal of getting customers engaged with where our product is today as well as where it’s going. The process gives us a good understanding of an objective outcome, not just a feature set that we’re serving to a particular customer. And our product team will often pair with our reps through the sales process, ensuring full transparency and lending credibility to the exercise. This is helpful especially early in the customer life cycle. 

Customer Development is a role within our business focused on engaging customers and prospects who stretch the limits of Flatfile’s core product abilities. This role involves gathering information about outcomes from the market and leveraging this input to prioritize and build features. The role involves working with our design partners (more below), coordinating design feedback sessions, and building out POCs (proof of concepts), all in close collaboration with those companies.

Our Design Partnership is a formal collaboration between Flatfile and our customers, and is critical to our outbound product management process. This selective partnership goes beyond reaching out for feedback or gathering thoughts on product direction from the journey map. This program relies on customers engaging in design sessions, workflow diagramming, understanding strategic business direction, and actually lining up our product roadmap with their business objectives. We select customers who are representative of both the current and future Flatfile customer base to ensure our product team is always engaging directly with customers who represent the broader market we need to serve. 

With each of these motions formally in play at Flatfile, we’ve built customer confidence and a market-tested roadmap. And if you’re interested in learning more about how to build an outbound product management strategy, register here to join my upcoming webinar with Product Collective on January 26th.