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How to build a customer-obsessed culture: product operations in action

How one company structures their product operations to hit their goals

Drew had been waiting a long time for a pickup order at a new Thai restaurant in his neighborhood. The restaurant was swamped and still hadn’t gotten him his food an hour after it was supposed to be ready. A delivery driver in the same boat was waiting next to him and getting worried because his customer was going to be upset, but there wasn’t anything the driver could do to speed things up.

Luckily for this driver, Drew happened to be a product leader at the same food delivery company. His responsibilities included scaling and enabling customer support, trust & safety, and the overall delivery experience.

Drew pulled out his phone, looked up the customer whose food was late, and called to explain that he was with delivery support. He provided a full refund to the customer and gave the driver an extra tip. The next day, he kicked off an initiative for customer support to proactively help in situations like this.

I recently got the chance to talk to Drew about his experience and what the company has done to build a customer-obsessed culture. Due to company policy, he asked that I keep the company anonymous.

Becoming Customer-Obsessed Takes Work

This food delivery company prides itself on its customer-centric values. Drew’s company has ingrained this value into their product culture through a series of operational decisions. I wanted to learn more about how the company did it, so I sat down with Drew for a talk about product culture.

As he describes it:

I’ve really liked our “bias for action” culture. What that means, practically speaking, is if you have an idea and you have something you want to do for the customer and you feel strongly that it’s the right thing to do for the customer, it’s culturally encouraged to run through walls to get it done. We’d much rather you release something to five customers, speak to them directly for feedback, figure out if it’s working, and then build your case from there. 

Through our conversation, he highlighted five things that the company has done to make this possible:

  1. Bring more cross-functional expertise onto the product team
  2. Make it easy to get in touch with customers directly
  3. Reward customer-first actions
  4. Define the customer problem before building
  5. Build in opportunities to generate empathy

Companies always say they’re user-centric, but not all make it easy to do. You need to integrate customer-centricity via multiple touchpoints to make customer obsession part of your culture.

5 strategies to encourage a user-centric product culture

Bring more cross-functional expertise into the product team

Most companies separate “technology” and “the business”, by having them report to separate executives and work on separate teams. At Drew’s company, an operations manager works on the core product team alongside design, analytics, engineering, and product management.

While the PM focuses on identifying customer pain points and opportunities, the operations manager’s responsibility is to leverage internal expertise to execute on a customer-centric go-to-market strategy. This means that the product and operations managers are both obsessing about customer pain points at different points in the journey and working together to solve them.

Although the ops manager is not part of a formal product operations team, this is another way for someone to be responsible for one of the product operations pillars. The operations manager embeds on the product team to lead the cross-functional communication pillar of product operations on a team, but reports to Operations.

Make it easy to get in touch with customers directly 

One easy-to-miss detail in Drew’s story is how he looks up the customer’s contact info. He was at a restaurant waiting to grab dinner, so didn’t have a laptop with him to dig through a bunch of different systems. His company invested in making these systems easy and accessible for all employees wherever they may be, on whatever device they may have.

As Drew points out, customers appreciate getting contacted by product managers:

Getting a call from the PM in charge of the entire area that didn’t quite work for the customer often times makes people feel, “Hey, they actually care, we were able to fix the issue.” So just don’t overthink it. The more guardrails you try to put up around talking to customers, the more likely you just don’t bother, and that creates a whole different issue. 

At Drew’s company, product managers can identify customers who have had particular issues, easily reach out to them, and not have to go through any red tape to do so. This simplifies bringing the customer voice into your product development process.

On top of that, the company runs “customer advocate groups”, which are roundtables of customers or people that frequently interact with customers. They can be a group of customer support agents, delivery drivers, or particularly vocal customers. The PM and operations team members set up customer advocate groups as needed, and the groups usually meet every week or two.

The key lesson: Make it easy to contact customers, build structures so the contact is frequent, and encourage everyone in the company to do user outreach to build this type of culture.

Reward customer-first actions

Drew spent company money that night to fix a customer problem. He did not receive any negative pushback from a manager, HR, or anyone else. On top of that, he reached out to the customer directly to provide help without needing to get permission from the customer support department or any other organization. When an employee reaches out directly to customers and spends company money to fix customer problems, they get praised for it. 

It sounds simple, but isn’t that common. Positive reinforcement for talking to customers, every single time, takes deliberate effort. It has to be celebrated frequently and publicly.

Define the customer problem before building

Product leadership at his company doesn’t let product teams start exploring solutions without a product brief. The product brief is a document intensely focused on the customer problem, why the problem matters, and the metrics that will indicate they have solved the problem.

What we find is really having a lot of focus on why is this problem painful for customers, why is this worth solving? It helps us to ultimately open the aperture on the different solutions and get to the right one faster.

The product manager drafts the product brief and makes sure the right people review it. The rest of the product development team gets involved in the editing and refinement process. Product leadership, like Drew, provide strategic guidance. This helps make sure the entire team has a sense of ownership over what they’re building. The team and relevant stakeholders iterate on the document together and evolve it until they’re aligned.

Build in opportunities to generate empathy

One of the coolest ways in which Drew’s company creates such a customer-centric culture is through their driver-for-a-day program. On a regular cadence, every employee at the company has to deliver at least one meal. This mandated dogfooding ensures that they connect with all their customers – drivers, restaurants, and diners – regularly.

As Drew’s Thai restaurant experience illustrates, first-hand experience can be powerful. Making sure every employee can do this kind of work regularly takes effort to set up, but the payoffs are huge. It makes customer empathy everyone’s responsibility, not just the product manager’s.

Customer obsession doesn’t happen by accident

Map out the various stages of your product development process. Decide what characteristics you want your culture to focus on the most. If customer centricity is a priority, make it explicit in your product development process. Is it clear how to include customer’s voice throughout? Are there any gaps where there’s a longer stretch without that voice of the customer? Are there any points where product managers on your team should be connecting with customers, but aren’t? Write it down and share it out.

A map of the ways in which the company has built in product obession into each phase in the product development cycle.

This illustration of your product development process helps expose how you can bring that customer voice into the process, from discovery to launch and evaluation. And if you need more help to understand where you stand today, feel free to reach out for a product operations assessment.

Drew’s company has established processes to encourage a customer-obsessed product culture. They have thought about how to get customer-centricity into every step of the way.

Many thanks for the excellent feedback from Kedar Deshpande, Ashleigh Zustra, and Larry McKeogh.