When your customer is not your user

A while ago at Product Tank London, we discussed ‘when your customer is not your user’. The speakers described their experiences of where their customer was not their user, what the challenges were and how they were (or weren’t) overcome.

When your customer is not your user…

One example of where customer != user is agencies. You are working for a client, whose users you are trying to engage. You have to please your client while creating something meaningful for their users. Depending on how familiar your client is with your process, that can be very difficult. There is a lot of client management that will require you to sometimes make compromises, and sometimes interpret what the client wants.

Another example came from a pre-AirBnB holiday letting website. The people paying for the service were the home owners wanting to rent out their place. The renters, who were the end users of the service were not paying anything. For this company, only some of their users were their customers. This led to the PM being forced to prioritise the needs of the home owners over the renters, which led to a terrible experience on the website — until they fixed it!

Another case discussed that evening was an enterprise software. While an enterprise product is used by many employees, the decision-maker on buying the software is usually the IT team or the CIO. In the past, enterprise software considered the needs of the buyer above anything else. The buyer usually wanting to lower risk and increase uniformity in process across the company. The needs of the users of being more efficient and flexible were often secondary. However, as the enterprise software market has become more competitive and mature, the needs of the user have been considered more and more. Yet balancing the buyer’s and the users’ needs remains a tough challenge for software enterprise PMs today.

Is life so much better when your customer is your user?

When the customer is your user, can you really just focus on your user’s needs, right?

Well — the story is more complicated. Whenever you have customers paying for a product, you will also have shareholders, or investors, or someone caring to create profit. Arguably, good user experience leads to more profit. But surely, you will have to prioritise certain features that help you make profit over a good user experience. For example, Instagram ads. They added nothing to the user experience, in fact they’ve made it a worst platform, yet the revenue generated for Facebook is huge. Again, as a product manager you will have to manage the fine balance between these conflicting interests even when your customer is your user.

Now, there are PMs in the non-profit sector, but they also have to worry about things other than the user needs. Often they are working in environments with small financial resources, or they have funders restricting the way their money is spent, or at least they have to align with the organisation’s overarching strategy, which may conflict at times with what the user needs are.

The good news is — that means we have a job!

Regardless of whether you are on a pure consumer product, a B2B product, in non-profit or in agency, a PM will always have to balance user needs with external pressures. They will just be different. If it was easy to determine what feature should be built next — then they probably wouldn’t need us.

It just shows how important our role as PM is. We attend long meetings to understand our stakeholders, we spend endless hours in user labs to understand the users, we are always learning about the context our products operate in and we work closely with our team to understand the technical limits. This is what allows us to then prioritise features confidently.

If it was easy, we wouldn’t be here! So be grateful for the challenge. 🙂


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