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Product development through customer communication

Much like any relationship, with products, continuous communication and the ability to listen to feedback (both good and bad) is one of the keys to its success. With that comes trust, loyalty and your enabling it to flourish into something more refined than what you initially started with.

Since the beginning of Liberio (a startup I co-founded in 2013) our communication—from the tone of voice when sharing our product story, to the way we interact with customers—has always been something we’ve devoted a large amount of time to.

The reasons for communicating are equally as important. Your product’s growth is dependent on your ability to listen, gather feedback and iterate. If you skip this, and base your roadmap entirely on assumptions, you get the messy mountain MVP that inevitably results in the product's downfall.

After building Liberio full-time for almost 2 years and working on other side-projects, I’ve learned quite a bit about customer communication and development:

People feel when it's personal

I spend a couple hours each day individually emailing several users who’ve published an eBook or are in the “struggle funnel” where I see them unsure or having difficulty with the product in some form of fashion. When first starting off, this can definitely be time-consuming, because you’re unsure what you’re looking for, and time can always be spent elsewhere. However, it helps you understand what it is the users—and product alike—truly need. From there, you can create a flexible framework that increases speed and in turn, makes life much easier for you.

For this, we created a “template”, with questions or thoughts we wanted to be sure to include in the email for a particular form of communication (e.g. we were hoping to learn about their experience using an existing feature we were considering changing.) For a number of people, we tailor each email according to what we know they were or are having trouble with, personalizing the message based on previous communications: asking how their latest writing is going, how they were progressing with that difficult part of their novel, etc. The template itself we kept as a simple macros, but we use platforms like Mailchimp to help with the distribution of newsletters and Intercom to keep track of all conversations threads.

We have a thing we like to call the “Random Reach-Out”. It’s simple: we reach back out to a customer after something they requested (in some earlier conversation, e.g. a bug, new functionality) was implemented or fixed. People feel important when you care enough to personally follow up to see how they’re doing. Intercom helps immensely when it comes to keeping track of who was replied to or not. Remember, some people won’t ask for help, but will gladly accept it if it’s offered.


People feel when it’s personal. So while macros, templates, and using all of the fancy automated products for your own is nifty, it shouldn’t take away from the personal time that should be invested the specific needs of your user.

"Customer Development is fundamentally about instituting behavior change in how we build products and it’s hard to effect that without a catalyst. I am not going to regurgitate the rational arguments for customer development here but recognize that the real obstacles are emotional not logical."

We all communicate differently

When you have a diverse user-base, you'll find that each user has a preferred method of communication. Typically that's either via email, video chat, or phone. Take the time to find out which method is most comfortable to the user in order to get quality feedback. And don’t forget, communication is just as much about what and how you communicate, as it is about where. This includes support tickets, newsletters, the product’s tone of voice, and social media chats that need to be expressed in a way that everyone can appreciate. Later down the road, localizing your platform and getting support members with a diverse language set is always a plus for this reason.

Handle customer service gracefully

We’ve all been there. If you’re communicating with an upset customer, try to withhold replying immediately. It's easy to get frustrated with individuals who are in a pickle and not the happiest by the time they reach you. They might sound terribly upset, passively aggressive, furiously pissed, or just unresponsive. It’s ok. Empathize with them, and aim to clear possible confusion or misunderstanding. This will be, by far, your most valuable asset as a colleague and company. Make your requests and feedback as genuine, clear, and short as possible—with an understanding that they truly mean well (majority of the time). Ensure you make it easy for them to contact you and prioritize responsiveness responsibly. In turn, you’ll gain their respect, and in many cases, a customer that will support you through the tough times.

It’s important to remember, we all come from all different walks of life, with different perspectives and different expectations of people due to our culture, society, etc. Though it may seem hard to understand that at times, this is a fantastic thing and a huge plus for the community of your product.

Note: this doesn’t mean you should accept any form of aggressiveness, harassment, etc. That is never okay.

Stepping out of the box

After spending all of your time building and using your product, it's hard to look at it from the same perspective your users do. To combat that, we payed as close attention as possible from the beginning about how individuals use the product and take a lot of input from the biggest complaints. We zoned in on the pain points customers were having and used that as a starting point.

We did so through the following:

Blog posts and convo points on our social networks asking questions and providing “tutorials” to help.
The occasional survey in addition to those “personal” emails.
Newsletters to initiate convos and get them talking.

So while we kind of gave the initial nudge to spark the convo, we made sure to word our titles/subjects and any conversation in a way that would require action from them (Help us help you!) and make them feel like they should feel open to converse with us.

Honesty first and foremost

Over the course of the past few months, I’ve followed the journey of companies (Product Hunt, Buffer, Ghost, Mattermark, etc.) towards full transparency in all that they do. They keep open and transparent communications with their customers, which helps build trust and loyalty. Not only that, but it provides invaluable insight to others in the community.

Let’s face it: a lot of things can go wrong in a company. Things break, small teams can’t work as fast (I know this all too well) as a 10-person team, and support tickets don’t always get that speedy response or resolution. I’ve found that being transparently open about whatever the situation is brings users into your world. It allows them the chance to understand what’s going on, which helps them build empathy towards you and your company. Without that, there’s no way that they can feel 100% with their customer service. If there’s one thing I learned from the days of freelancing and agency work, it’s: “Under-promise, over-deliver.”.

There’s a similarity between products and relationships. If you treat people well, if you respect them, and care about their well-being, they typically stick around. If you’re honest, open yourself up to being vulnerable and vocal (no matter what it is), you build a foundation of trust that almost no amount of “hiccups” can tarnish. When you look at it, the surprising thing is, you don't have to do much in the communication department be successful, except care.

How do you communicate with your users? What works and what doesn't? I'd love to know, so let's chat about it on Twitter @imcatnoone! Like this post? Give it a share and be sure to sign up for my newsletter (below).