Diana Hsieh Diana specializes in startup product management in B2B SaaS. She was the first product manager at Cockroach Labs and Timescale and is currently co-founder at Correlated, a SaaS solution for product-led go-to-market teams.

How to balance customer focus with innovation

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How To Balance Customer Focus With Innovation

When we look at some of the most innovative products that came out over the last decade, a lot of them seem like wild swings with tenuous connections to true customer needs.

Did customers ask Elon Musk for an electronic car? Many naysayers thought electric cars could never match the power of gas guzzlers.

Did customers ask Steve Jobs for a touch screen? I remember thinking that I preferred the tactile touch of my Blackberry that I used in my first job out of college!

If customers were questioning why they needed some of the most innovative products of our time, are innovation and customer focus at odds with each other? In this article, we’ll explore this necessary balance.

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Are innovation and customer focus at odds with each other?

It can be easy to think that innovation and customer focus conflict. As product managers, you’re constantly getting feature requests from customers that end up pushing back net new and exciting features.

Perhaps your biggest customer wants a specific security feature that only the largest customers need, or maybe they want you to build a specific integration for software that only they use. To meet these needs, you end up pushing back big, needle-moving projects to satisfy the immediate need to earn and retain revenue.

But I don’t think innovation and customer focus are at odds with each other, and here’s why. The examples I provided above are better defined as customer asks — and doing exactly what your customers ask you to do isn’t what customer focus is.

Rather, customer focus is about deeply understanding what your customers want (both rationally and emotionally) and coming up with a way to deliver the right product. While your customers are often grounded in what is currently possible, it’s your job to imagine the possibilities in the future, even if it’s not exactly what they asked for.

But let’s be realistic here. Although theoretically, you should be thinking about innovating in ways that have a true customer focus, sometimes things simply need to be done exactly how customers want them. An iPhone needs to allow you to input numbers and call someone. A car needs to take someone from one location to another. There is no need to reinvent the wheel on everything, and sometimes you just need to unblock customers when they have specific requests.

In these cases, yes, it is a balancing act between figuring out whether or not you should innovate or simply do what a customer asks.

A framework to decide when to innovate and when to satisfy customer requests

When tasked with any product prioritization challenge, I always suggest that a weighted portfolio approach is the way to go. Just like how you don’t want to put all your eggs in one basket when you invest in stocks, you similarly need to spread your product investments across different priorities.

For example, in our current roadmap that I’m planning right now, one-third of our work is focused on our core value proposition, one-third is on expanding our differentiators, and one-third is on dealing with important customer requests.

Your buckets might be different, although I would highly suggest not going beyond three. Having too many areas of focus will not only spread your team thin, but your team will also have trouble actually prioritizing their work on their own, as there are simply too many priorities! By taking a portfolio approach, you ensure that you’re working on important customer needs while still planning for the future by innovating.

Now the obvious next question is: what if you have so many customer requests that you simply need to fill 80 percent of your roadmap with them?! I’ve typically found across all the roadmaps that I’ve built that though dealing with important customer requests is almost always a bucket to invest in, sometimes innovation actually falls out of the top three priorities. So if customer requests are so important, how do you decide what goes in and what doesn’t? Shouldn’t customer requests always come before a needle-moving but inherently risky product area?

I ask myself two very straightforward and simple questions that have gotten me pretty far when deciding whether or not to do something. First, how important is it to do something right now? And secondly, what will happen if you don’t do something? Let’s break this down.

Question 1: How important is it to do something right now?

There are two critical criteria embedded in this simple question: importance and urgency. Often, when you get a customer request, it’s easy to panic — especially if the customer requesting it is a big company. You’re worried you’ll lose the customer and you certainly don’t want to be blamed for making the wrong product prioritization decision.

What’s really important is not to take a customer request at face value. In fact, when I hear a request come in either from sales or customer success, I always ask them whether it’s preventing the customer from converting or adopting the product. If the customer is able to do a core set of use cases even without this feature, or the customer has already decided to buy the product, then it can wait.

Another really important thing to keep in mind is that sometimes, you have to go right to the source. Often, sales and customer success teams are playing a balancing act when talking to customers — they want to sound amenable to customer requests and might not dig in on the exact requirements. That’s why I’ll often pull up call recordings to hear exactly what a customer asked for and their tone when they were asking for it. I also often follow up with the customer specifically to get more details.

You can also apply this question to whether or not you should focus on innovation. As we discussed earlier, innovating doesn’t mean that you’re ignoring customers, but rather that you’re taking a more forward-looking approach to addressing customer needs that may not be exactly what the customer requested.

One of the most important things to think about in terms of whether or not you have to innovate right now is that innovation takes time. If you don’t make forward progress on innovation, you continue to push back the actual time that it takes to release something truly new. As you think about how important it is to innovate right now, consider the competitive market, your business situation, and how urgently you need this innovation to expand your market.

Question 2: What will happen if you don’t do something?

The second question here is focused on identifying the risk of delaying handling customer requests or innovating. If you’re literally going to lose a big customer by not doing something, then the risk is really high. If you risk falling behind your competitors by not innovating quickly enough, then that’s also a high-risk decision. The reason why it’s important to think through risk is because it forces you to think ahead. If you’re always reacting to customer requests, you risk missing big market trends.

It’s typically really hard to choose to prioritize a large innovative project that might take multiple quarters to accomplish, but this is an extremely important thing to do. If you only build customer requests, you risk hitting a limit and stagnating when you’ve saturated your market. By the time you realize this, you’re going to be way behind. That’s why taking a portfolio approach is a great idea — it forces you to always invest in forward-looking features while being critical about what needs to be done now.

How to actually build out a weighted portfolio approach with your roadmap

Now that we’ve talked about the weighted portfolio approach, how do you tactically go about doing this? How do you define what 30 percent even looks like? I’m the only product person at my startup, and since I literally handle every feature that goes out, I have a good gut sense of what 30 percent looks like without going through an entire exercise.

But when you’re on a team and managing a portfolio of products, you need the frontline team to help you figure out how much time you’re spending on any given area. I like to use t-shirt sizes to do this.

A small takes around one week, a medium takes around two weeks, a large takes four weeks, and an extra large takes eight weeks. Notice that I don’t go to XXL, because I think it’s better to scope things down and break things up into multiple projects so that at the end of each project, you can reassess your investments.

Once you’ve done your sizing (which should definitely be done as a team exercise with engineering), you’ll want to count how many working weeks you have spread across the engineering team. Make sure to include vacation, etc. This way, you’ll be able to see not only how you’ve distributed your portfolio of product features, but also whether or not you’ve committed your team to a reasonable amount of work.

It’s also important to leave room for bug fixing and technical debt. I usually leave 20 percent wiggle room when building out a product roadmap.


Ultimately, innovation and customer focus go hand in hand. As you innovate, you’re trying to come up with new ways to satisfy customers that don’t necessarily match what customers explicitly ask for. That doesn’t mean you aren’t focused on providing a great experience for your customers.

On the flip side, dealing with customer requests can often push innovative projects that seem risky and less immediately important to the wayside. If you aren’t careful, you’ll feel like you’re endlessly running on a treadmill chasing after customer requests, but not actually moving forward.

By taking a weighted portfolio approach when building out your product roadmaps, you can ensure that you leave adequate room to truly innovate.

Featured image source: IconScout

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Diana Hsieh Diana specializes in startup product management in B2B SaaS. She was the first product manager at Cockroach Labs and Timescale and is currently co-founder at Correlated, a SaaS solution for product-led go-to-market teams.

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