There is a phrase, “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.” The customer who complains the loudest, often gets what they want. In product management, it can be all too easy to give into these distractions and lose sight of the more strategic things on your roadmap. While the occasional small item worked in isn’t going to completely derail you, a continued pattern of allowing the “thing someone is yelling about” immediately become the top priority can have significant impacts on your product goals. Here are some ways you can keep your strategic focus:
Know Your Roadmap
It is much easier to have a conversation about why you can’t absorb a piece of work if you can quickly articulate what is going to be impacted. When your squeaky wheel is represented by teams inside your company such as sales or marketing, I like to have a physical representation of the roadmap and backlog. Assuming your roadmap is truly filled with the most important things, it becomes really easy to stand in front of a whiteboard filled with sticky notes and say “What do you propose I pull off to add this?” Frequently, this is enough to help stakeholders realize the impact of their requests, and can facilitate a discussion around the best timing to solve their issue. It turns an urgent conversation into a strategic one.
Know the Real Impact
Loud voices amplify problems, making them seem bigger than they actually are. There are times that simply looking at data puts the squeaky wheel into perspective and allows you to deflect the distraction. We recently had a new feature launch that was mentioned in a few negative App Store reviews, tweets, and emails immediately after. Some team members go nervous, suggesting that we had gotten the feature wrong and wondering if we should turn it off. Digging into the data, we found that the total number of people who were complaining about the feature was 6. Out of a customer base in the millions, we were talking about turning off a feature based on 6 loud users. Just knowing the real impact kept the problem in perspective and allowed us to maintain focus on our strategic goals.
Know Your Core Customers
The best way to keep the squeaky wheel at bay is to turn up the volume of the rest of your customers. If the squeaky wheel is the only thing you hear, you start to believe it is the feeling of your full base. As product managers, we should be talking to our customers on a regular basis as a normal practice anyways. But an added bonus is by talking to them, your core audience’s voice gets louder, making the smaller, more vocal groups less distracting. The key here is that the squeaky wheels will come to you, but to engage with your happier customer base, you will need to go to them. Make talking to your customers a regular practice and you will be much better prepared to discern whether something is affecting just a small subset of your users, or if it is a broad need that you really should make a higher priority.
A final word on squeaky wheels: sometimes they are right. Simply being a vocal minority doesn’t automatically mean their request should be dismissed. But we should always be striving to evaluate every request for its strategic value, not prioritizing our roadmaps based on who is the loudest voice that day.
Note: this originally appeared as a guest article for the Product Management Festival blog.