Years ago when I was at HubSpot, I was fortunate enough to work alongside a VP of Marketing named Joe Chernov, now the CMO at Insight Squared. During his first week on the job, he said something which has stuck with me ever since, throughout my roles as Creative Director at HubSpot, Chief Product Officer at Firecracker, and now first-time founder at Parlay. It went a little something like this: Nearly every team tends to drastically overestimate how well they know their customers.

At the time I was still very much sipping the personas kool-aid, so I didn’t immediately put much stock in it. Over time, though, I’ve come to realize just how accurate Joe was, as well has how ubiquitous of a problem this really is. So too, it seems, has the industry; one need look no further than companies like Drift, Intercom, and Hotjar to see the fundamental shift occurring away from assumptions about the user based on broad generalizations to understanding of the user based on direct communication. It’s the right move, and it’s refreshing to see Marketing, Sales, and Customer Support teams embracing this much needed shift.

Nearly every team tends to drastically overestimate how well they know their customers.

Which unfortunately brings me to the current state of Product teams, which I consider my home. More so than arguably any other team, Product needs to have the most accurate, thorough, and in depth understanding of the wants and needs of users. But much more so than that, they need to nurture the deepest, most personal relationships with users. The reason for this is simple: in an ever increasing competitively crowded landscape, it is no longer enough for Product teams to only concern themselves with refining their feature set or interactive experiences. That alone is no longer sufficient, let alone a winning strategy. They have to focus on the relationship.

Some thing's take a while to accept

The current state of Product teams.

As much as I hate to acknowledge it, though, Product teams have made fairly little progress toward this goal, at least when compared to our Marketing counterparts. Think about it: the vast majority of us still rely on another team – Customer Support – to handle feature requests, still rely solely on analytics tools to passively learn about our users, still use random people through a third party site for user testing, still go days or even weeks without having direct 1:1 conversations with our users. Seriously, when was the last time your designers spoke to a user (go on, ask them)? Likewise, when was the last time one of the Product teams from a product you use asked for your input on something they were considering building? The answer to both of those questions should trouble you. But that’s what we’ve all come to accept as normal.

Which brings me to the fundamental flaw plaguing most Product teams today: Nearly everything we know about our users is gained indirectly (through passive observation – ahem… analytics – rather than active communication), from another team (such as through the sales process or incoming support tickets), or from the wrong stage in the user’s lifecycle (either before they’re a user or after they’re disgruntled enough to consider churning). And because of this, the information learned is often inaccurate, unclear, biased, not actionable, or – in the worst of cases – distracting. As a Product team, it’s precisely these types of fallacious assumptions of our users’ wants and needs – “learned” using a wide range indirect and dubious tools, methods, and processes – which so often leads us down the expensive and time-consuming path of building features which resonate poorly with our users, resulting in little more than additional tech and support debt.

Rather than waiting to see engagement with a developed feature before determining its success, teams should be measuring their users’ sentiment of it as early as the design phase, before a single line of code has been written. Rather than tracking thousands of random incoming feature requests, teams should be actively leveraging their users to determine which features from their roadmap will have the greatest impact. Rather than viewing every user as an equally important data point, teams should know exactly which individual users are uniquely capable of providing the highest quality, most actionable feedback.

In short, what Product teams need to do is take a page out of their Marketing counterpart’s playbook and start engaging users in a far more proactive and personal manner, treating them not just as a cohort of customers, but rather as an army of potential collaborators. This not only requires a shift in the tools and methods we use to engage and learn from our users; it also requires a shift in how we view the nature of our relationship with users.

In time, teams who ignore this shift for the comfort of scalability and routine will ultimately find themselves in quicksand, battling a slow but inevitable disruption from competitors with deeper, more mature relationships with users.