Just a few weeks back, I was a guest lecturer at NYU’s Tech MBA program. One aspiring product manager asked me, “if your company has promised a feature or a product to close a customer. But the deadline to deliver on this commitment is missed, how do you deal with such a situation?”
An aside: You’re probably wondering why a commitment like this was made, just to close a customer. In a B2B or B2B2C environment, this will ALWAYS happen. Whether we like it or not. I, for one, might be in the minority of product managers that are entirely comfortable making these commitments, as long as the right people are involved. The product team (PMs, engineers, designers), the sales representative(s), and/or account managers, and the exec team (depending on the size of the customer).
My response to the question, counterintuitive as it might seem, was: “In fact, these are some of my favorite conversations to have. They will, hopefully, allow me to build a better, stronger, and longer-lasting relationship with this customer.”
On the importance of building customer relationships
Before I elaborate, I want to discuss the importance of building customer relationships in a B2B or B2B2C environment. Your customers are often either the decision-makers, paying entities, or both for your product. They are the ones that your business’ growth, longevity, and existence depend upon. You need to ensure their needs are continuously being met. And that they’re continuously happy. You are accountable and responsible for balancing the needs of one customer against the rest of your market.
On building a connection with your customers
I always tell PMs on my team that we should always have a proverbial Rolodex of customers. We need key user personas within these customers and decision-makers who represent our market. We need people we can always reach out to, informally or formally. They are your product development partners to bounce ideas off of. To validate or invalidate any hypotheses we might have. And to give feedback on our roadmap, and conduct design research.
This Rolodex is NOT the same as a formal Customer Advisory Group but should represent a group of entities that you trust and who trust you. You have established a bond or rapport with them. This is not just for you to reach out to them for advice – be prepared for them to contact you as well if they have any concerns, questions, or feedback regarding your product. Give them white glove service. This is a two-way street. It will be well worth your time.
These entities are your BFFs when it comes to developing excellent products and features. They do not have to be the only ones you partner with. But they may end up being your closest allies in the product development process from outside your organization.
Why should they be your BFFs? Because you can leverage their experience with your product, their experience within their industry or market segment, and your relationship with them to get quick, unbridled, honest feedback, and help you shape and refine your product vision, strategy, and the execution path.
On how missing deadlines can foster stronger customer relationships
I see missed deadlines as an opportunity to foster a much stronger relationship with your customer. I can build trust, leverage this rebuilt trust in the future, and hopefully include them in my proverbial Rolodex.
For sake of simplicity, let’s assume that the customer did not realize until the day before the deadline that the feature or product they were eagerly looking forward to was no longer being released on this date. And instead, it was delayed by a month. While every scenario is different.
I usually follow some variation of the following set of guidelines to help assuage this upset customer.
Get introduced to the customer
- #1: I ask the salesperson or account manager at my organization, who has a direct relationship with this customer if I can speak directly with the customer. They can facilitate the meeting, but I want to be the primary representative from my company on this call.
- #2: As soon as I get on the call with the customer, I introduce myself as the person that’s accountable and responsible for the delivery of the product that they are excited about. If I have been with my company for a significant period of time, I might mention that as well so as to build further trust with the customer. However, if I have been with my company for only a few months, I might choose to avoid mentioning that.
Be transparent in customer relationships
- #3: This is probably the most crucial step. I apologize on behalf of my team and my company for failing to meet our commitment.
- Aside: This is an unconditional apology regardless of who was at fault. In fact, I will apologize even if the reason for our failure in our commitment was because of a fault on the customer’s side (e.g. they failed to give us documentation on time for integration with their infrastructure).
- #4: I will then transparently talk through the circumstances leading up to the deadline being missed. Below is a non-exhaustive list:
- Circumstance 1 – We ran into significantly more tech debt than we had anticipated when making the original commitment, and had to rectify this in order to ensure a great experience for the customer.
- Circumstance 2 – We had unforeseen attrition on the team, which resulted in us moving people around (or hiring replacements). nd the ramp-up time for these individuals took time away from working on this product or feature.
- Circumstance 3 – We underestimated the complexity of the product or feature we were building.
- Circumstance 4 – We ran into unforeseen dependencies on third parties that we had to navigate through as they were slow to respond to us.
- #5: For each of the circumstances, be prepared to talk through specific examples. Wherever possible, I share details of our tech stack that might make development more complicated than originally anticipated.
Recommit to and reassure the customer
- #6: Then explain what the revised timelines look like, and what your team will be using this additional time for.
- As part of this, also be transparent about the risks you foresee. And what you’re planning on doing to mitigate these risks.
- Remember, you want them to know that they are heard. And that you have their best interests in mind.
- #7: Finally, let your customer know the cadence you will be following in providing them updates on your progress. So that any future risks are not a surprise.
- #8: Bonus points: Describe how this product or feature still fits in with your broader strategy, and how it will continue to meet or exceed the customer’s needs in the future. Craft a story and narrative for how you envision your customer playing a role in this journey with you and your team.
On the importance of transparency with your customers
Regardless of how upset a customer has been with a deliverable, transparency is the key to begin reestablishing trust with that customer.
Once you have finished discussing the immediate product or feature at hand, leverage this opportunity by establishing a process to engage with the customer on an ongoing basis. Talk to them about how you’d like to brainstorm with them on future ideas and hypotheses. Let them know you’d like to keep them informed of your roadmap, strategy, and product evolution. This is your opportunity to establish a close and ongoing relationship with the customer.
The template above may work in a number of tough situations you find yourself in with either external or internal customers. We talked about them in the context of missing a deadline, but you could follow a similar set of steps for a newly released product or feature that contained bugs. In such a scenario, you would talk about what you’re planning on doing moving forward to avoid such a scenario from recurring. You might find the need for conversations about reprioritizing initiatives given the new information you have discovered. In this case, you might need to have an even more uncomfortable conversation about why you deprioritized an initiative in favor of another.
At the end of the day, transparency and humility are critical. And along with your ability to tell a story for your product area, you will be able to develop a stronger and longer-lasting relationship with your customer.
About the speaker
Aditya Subramaniam has been in product for over a decade, almost entirely at early- to mid-stage technology startups, and across multiple industries like mobile security, education, and healthcare. He is particularly passionate about B2B and B2B2C products, partnering directly with customers to develop world-class solutions. Outside work, he enjoys playing tennis, reading books, and listening to death metal.