Erin Wright is Vice President of Product Management at MasterControl. A dedicated leader of multiple product teams, Erin has helped drive 3x ARR for MasterControl.
In our conversation, Erin shares insights into the importance of empathy in truly understanding the needs of customers. She talks about her team’s education sessions where they spend a “day in the life” of customers and how her team reorients around the voice of the customer if it strays off course.
I worked at a psychiatric hospital for a few years after college and had a lot of empathy working with a vulnerable patient population. Then, one of my friends from college was working at a startup, Clarix Products Group, that did clinical trial software. I started in their quality assurance team doing documentation reviews and learned a lot about regulations.
From there, I stayed in life sciences software. I came up with an idea to help my company, MasterControl, do a validation process much more simply, and they were so excited about it that they created a role for me to own that product idea. Now, this validated excellence tool is our patented product. We released it in 2017 and it predated FDA guidelines on how to do software validation by about five years!
I absolutely agree. Being able to take yourself out of your perspective of how things work is, in my opinion, one of the most critical skills for a product manager.
You need very strong user empathy to understand the problems they’re trying to solve. We’ve been trying to work with our PMs on that so they can see different perspectives of how customers use our software and the problem sets that they have.
We have an education series where we bring in customers and do a day in their lives. We see what their days look like and ask them what keeps them up at night. If they’re not using MasterControl, what else are they doing throughout their day? We want a good understanding of what it looks like to be one of our customers and what they care about. That way, we can focus on their needs and processes.
It can be really uncomfortable, but it’s how we get a fully faceted understanding of our product’s lifecycle in our customers’ hands.
We do a combination of both going to the customer and bringing customers to us. On the manufacturing side, for example, we have a 60-day post-go live checkup. Our product directors and some of the UX team will fly out to the customer site when they’re having their consultants come hands-on. We’ll see how things are going, their usage of the products, and pain points they’re seeing, and fine-tune things from there. Occasionally, we’ll have our teams fly out to the customers and go through a day in their life on the floor.
When they come to us, there are one-to-two hour long Zoom calls and we’re able to bring everybody in. We have a great partnership and very deep relationships with our customers because of the value that our products provide and the engagement we have with them. We often find that they are thrilled to come to talk and share their perspectives with us to make sure that they feel heard. We haven’t struggled to find people to share their perspectives with us because of that. It’s been really wonderful.
We’ve recentered the voice of the customer as our top priority. It’s really easy to keep looking at the next mountain to climb and continually focus on solving a problem by building X, Y, and Z software. I’ve found that a lot of that may come from your own domain expertise — drawing off your own experiences, creating that PoC and process, and launching it out to market without having considered how the world has changed.
Software has changed dramatically in the last two decades. We found that we had really brilliant people with excellent ideas but were drawing on their own expertise. The lack of perspective from our customers created a disconnect — we weren’t ensuring that we were centering on what they needed. We had to circle back to making sure that we understood that our customer’s needs and problems were the center of what we were trying to do as a company.
Our software had a search functionality where you could search for a specific word and it would find the record you were looking for. We’d moved on to greener pastures building our manufacturing product but were getting consistent feedback in our NPS comments that our search functionality was not meeting customer expectations.
When we released our search functionality originally, it was perfectly fine for what it was. But it’s like that Amazon effect: once you get used to two-day shipping, week-long shipping is no longer acceptable, even if it was perfectly fine a year ago. Just like that, Google changed how we think about search and expectations around what a search engine can do.
It kept coming up but we weren’t addressing it. About two years ago, we pulled together a highly specialized team to reimagine search. We talked to customers and began deep research, and we released the new product in August. We were so focused on integrating more closely with our manufacturing product or tackling new problems that we’d moved away from the pain our customers were feeling at that moment.
We have multidimensional feedback resources. We pull in a lot of qualitative and quantitative data to make data-driven decisions about what we’re focusing on.
Specifically, we track usage analytics to see who’s in the system and how often new features are getting added, as well as look at configuration analytics through our data warehousing tool (Domo). We have our product advisory council, our PAC, which are customers who have openly agreed to give us feedback and let us contact them when we have research questions.
We have the voice of the customer and our UX researchers and product managers also host qualitative interviews together. Then, every quarter, we run targeted product feedback questionnaires. Finally, we also have a great customer success management team who do their quarterly business reviews. They’ll pull usage metrics, data, and adoption rates, and gather the top five wins and areas of improvement. Our product managers will go into those QBRs for their accounts to talk through everything.
On our manufacturing side, one of the key KPIs we have is the time to value. We have a metric we call first CPR — first completed production records — which is the first time a customer starts using our software on the manufacturing line and the date from when they sign the contract to when they get their first CPR.
Looking at that time to value, we have what we call the A3, a sheet that calls out the ROI of using our software over the course of a year. Essentially, it’s how quickly you can move off paper and improve your quality processes. In manufacturing, you can’t make money on products until they’ve been quality-approved because, obviously, you don’t want unsafe products going to market. That takes manual reviews, but our software can reduce that time from six weeks to six hours because so much of it is automated. When you have electronic data capture, we can immediately flag data that’s out of the appropriate limits.
We also keep track of the average deviations you used to have before using our software and how many deviations you log with our software. Making sure that’s a negative ratio is an important KPI and measure of success on that front.
Everything is about solving customer problems. So if there is an innovation that is going to solve problems better in a way that we’re doing now, that’s the best way to solve that problem and we invest in that.
I don’t see it as an either/or product innovation versus the voice of the customer and maintaining an older product. It’s about the best way to solve the problems our customers are facing. Whether that’s through building a new product or whether that’s through iteration on your older products, I think the key point is focusing on what problems we’re trying to solve.
One of the easiest was the move to the cloud. We moved to the cloud in 2017 officially. Being a cloud-based product, there’s a lot more flexibility and reach to your customers.
We also adjusted our bundling and packaging prices. We found our pricing structure was really overwhelming for our customers. They weren’t sure where they were getting value from, the purpose of the different products, or why we had certain products mixed together. We switched over to more of a solutions sales process and bundling where we created packages that solve specific customer problems.
We do five-year, three-year, one-year, and quarterly planning for our processes. We’ll take an audacious, inspiring objective that isn’t necessarily time-bound but still technically put a little time-bound on it. We do this to see, in five years, where we want to be. So how do we get there? What needs to be done this year and at the three-year point to get there in five years? We break it down into bite-sized chunks that get us there.
Anything that’s not under that priority, we need to have a conversation around. Everything has to align with our core objective, and you have to justify why it’s important that we do it now if it doesn’t align with that.
I am big on one-on-one conversations. As we’re talking about doing a change to a process, all of our teams, directors, and PMs have a biweekly sync with each of our internal stakeholders. We’re building close interpersonal relationships with internal stakeholders regularly so that when we bring a change to the table, we can talk about it and have a good understanding of what their part of the process is.
When you have those tight relationships, you can propose things and come from a place of high trust. It’s much easier to have open, candid conversations about risks or concerns that aren’t coming from a place of low trust where someone feels like you’re springing something on them.
That is absolutely one of our hiring hashtags. We have a great company. I love working for MasterControl and have been here for about 11 years. MasterControl’s culture is based very firmly on its core values, one of which is the people quotient — treat people like people, and everyone is a high-trust individual.
Wit h every decision or anytime something goes sideways, people come into the conversation with that mentality. It makes it so much easier to get to a root cause. Because of that high trust, people are more likely to admit when they make a mistake. It’s a wonderful environment where there’s just so much trust to allow people to own their mistakes and learn from them.
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