We live in an age where customers have more power over their lives than ever before. Users can tap their phone to summon a car, groceries, a Wikipedia page, or even a dog walker. But that doesn’t mean there’s room for everyone. After all, customers are only going to settle on a few tools in their lives. Understanding their wants and needs is more critical to a company’s success than ever.
The best companies need to be built with customer empathy at the heart of the business, creating products designed around what customers really need and not just what they request, if they want to justify those precious minutes in an average user’s day. We’ve moved beyond a time where engineers defined the best companies. We’re well beyond a time where the best companies were the ones with the best sales and distribution strategies. A successful company can’t just lean on having the best customer support, because that simply doesn’t scale.
The coming years will be defined by the best possible products, with the best design, and the best teams that understand their customers. Above all, it will be defined by a team that has the foresight to determine what the customer needs, and not just what they ask.
In essence, 2019 and the next decade will be defined by the emergence of — and hard pivot to — the product-led company.
Moving from “failing fast” to “product excellence”
Many of the best products in the world are defined by their design and their function, and not just from their technical superiority or simplicity. The hardest technical problems on the planet two years ago are now just a dozen or so lines of code through an API.
Frameworks have trivialized previous technological feats and APIs handle the rest of the workflow while companies focus entirely on what makes their product special. Customers may now also be willing to adopt a little bit of friction to have a superior product experience. 1Password, for example, offers an enormous amount of security across the board for just a little bit of friction. The challenge is now finding the sweet spot and getting the experience right.
And sure, you can market the hell out of your product. You can acquire users through subsidized deals, reckless spending on Facebook and Google advertising, or high-profile campaigns where you spend millions on a Super Bowl ad. But none of this makes up for having an inferior product or breaching the trust of the customer.
The best sales pitch is a quick trial of an awesome product, like Slack, that converts to a customer that won’t churn for months. This has been a tried and true strategy since the days of Dropbox, but customers demand more beyond just powerful technical tools.
The rise of the Chief Product Officer
Many of the best companies start from a whiteboard, and having the best people that know how to solve customer-oriented problems is now one of the top requirements of a company. The Chief Product Officer is a more critical role than ever, and companies are chasing down the best talent they can find as quickly as possible.
The best executives know how to hire and delegate, and getting someone who has those key product skills — understanding and segmenting a market, determining requirements, building those features, and knowing how to test and iterate — is now table stakes for any company to be successful.
Every organization in the world now needs to create the best product experience and an executive leader to champion it — even traditional ones. Organizations like The Atlantic and the United States Department of Health and Human Services are hiring for this key position. Any activity today, whether that’s signing up for healthcare, trying to learn a new language, tracking your fitness or sending photos to your friends, has to focus on the user experience to maintain a long-lasting business that solves a critical need.
This is going to be a very big problem for many companies. It’s a new way of thinking thanks in large part to the trivialization of a lot of technical problems that slow down a company as they grow. While companies had traditionally looked for VPs and other executives to fill those holes in expertise, the role of a CPO has emerged as a top priority to lead the charge.
The skills of a great CPO are softer and hard to define, but above all else, require a level of customer empathy that often comes well after a product has hit the market and grown immensely.
Putting together the best product team is going to be like putting together the best team for any other part of an organization. It needs someone well-equipped to delegate. They will need to hire employees that have the right skill sets and understand the product and customer base.
But above all, they will have to create a culture that gets them excited about working on a product every day. For companies that are sales- and engineering-driven, product might come second or third on that list. Product now has to come first, and that has to start from the top.
This is an incredibly exciting time. The product team has always been a critical piece of the puzzle and has had an incredible impact on the success of a company — even if it weren’t obvious on paper. But all these changes mean the role has never been more important, and we are coming to a critical juncture where the Chief Product Officer will define the future of the best companies.
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Published March 10, 2019 — 13:30 UTC