Kristin Dorsett is Chief Product Officer at Viator, a Tripadvisor company and online marketplace for travel experiences. Kristin was previously in product leadership at Tripadvisor and, earlier in her career, held a number of roles at HomeAway developing products and services for vacation rental owners and property managers.
In our conversation, Kristin shares how her current role requires more problem-spotting and less problem-solving and focuses on how to put her best people on the hardest problems. She talks about how the customer feedback process at Viator often surprises product teams, with feedback from customers sometimes going against PMs’ initial instincts. Kristin also discusses what being a PM looks like at Viator and how it combines the product owner and product marketer roles into one.
I think almost every product person has some kind of other background. I came from a marketing background and moved into running sales teams at HomeAway (now Vrbo), a vacation rental marketplace. I found that my sales teams were struggling to sell the product because it wasn’t working for our customers. I was persistent about what we should change until eventually they let me take a team and go build what I thought we needed.
I knew the customers very well and loved the challenge. Our main problem was getting property managers to work with HomeAway, when historically, the platform was made for individual homeowners. None of the tools were made to do anything en masse, and my sales team told me that they couldn’t sell because our tools didn’t work for customers.
That was a really fun journey — getting to build all the tools that I knew our customers needed, seeing our property manager segment grow incredibly over time based on all these tools, and unlocking new inventory we didn’t have before. Coming at it from a sales and marketing perspective of what you need to build to sell the product is an interesting way of coming into product management. It sometimes helps you have more empathy for the customer.
I think it’s good to get involved as an SME with a product being launched or a problem being solved, shadow the process, and see how a product manager would approach it. Then, if you can get the opportunity to take the lead on a problem in your area of expertise, I’ve found that that tends to be a path that works well for people.
We try to do that at Viator. If someone says they’re interested in product, we partner them with a PM and have them shadow. We’ve had several cases where someone does that and wants to run their own project because they really like product management. Many of these individuals have grown into PMs within our teams now.
Conventionally, you can take a course and get all the credentials you need, and then maybe someone will take a chance on you. But I think getting your hands dirty doing actual product work in your current role as an extension tends to be more successful. It’s much harder to get another company to take a chance on you, and much easier to get your current company to give you a chance.
In my current role, it’s pretty different. With every change you have where you’re managing more people, your role becomes much less hands-on. You’re the one doing less problem-solving and more problem-spotting. That’s what I see as my role now — where are the opportunities and problems within the business, within our different customer segments, and how do I then put our best people on the hardest problems? It’s more about matching talent to problems.
We have several data sources internally that help us identify what those problems are that each of our customer types has. We have qualitative responses coming in from user and market research — mainly what customers say they want, how Viator stacks up, and any problems they’re encountering on our site. We have a robust voice-of-the-customer program that takes all of our written and verbal content out there and consolidates them into a mineable database. That helps us figure out the biggest issues for different parts of our funnel.
There’s also the macro competitive landscape of looking at what our competitors are doing, what other travel verticals are doing, and seeing potential opportunities from that. I’m a big fan of that, especially when it’s working for other companies. We can see those strategies and apply them to our own customer problems, but there are a lot of good ideas out there that can be tested pretty much on their own.
So we had some property manager customers who were already using our owner platform, but we had a lot of people with homeowner accounts and we were trying to figure out which of them were actually property managers. There were a number of different analyses to try to figure out who the property managers are that are already on our platform.
We did a huge database exercise where we had desk researchers manually look online and compile a database of every single property manager of a certain size in the US. And we had sales teams starting to call them and I would piggyback on some of those calls to see that these big property managers have no interest in working with HomeAway, but why? What’s blocking them?
We learned a lot. It was a lot about connectivity. They had their own reservation systems that they use to run their business and we didn’t have integrations with those. It would take them an army of humans to manually update things if they were going to work with HomeAway and that wasn’t something they wanted to do. So we built a lot of connectivity over the years to make it as seamless as possible for those property managers.
We have a planning process overall for big projects, or what we call big bets. These are the big rocks of our roadmap. We do it twice a year and we’re looking at the overall opportunity size of picking different big problems to go after.
For example, we have category taxonomy on our website. That is one of the core things of how users interact with us and how operators want to sell with us. And that’s something that came up in research on both sides that we’ve prioritized and is a big year-long initiative. On a team level, this is where they have a pulse on their customers through the voice of the customer and NPS surveys. This is when we constantly hear about recurring issues so let’s dig into the product analytics of how widespread this issue is. Then we chip away at those problems over time.
The role of product manager does something slightly differently at every company and I think it even depends on the composition of the cross-functional team. We try to have every cross-functional team member be a participating member of a core group instead of staying strictly in their lane.
For us, we’re better staffed in product marketing on the B2B side than B2C. So for the B2C side, our product managers are product owners, in the scrum sense, and also product marketers because they need to know their customers really well and look ahead at the market and what the market needs. For smaller projects, they’re doing a lot of the go-to-market activities themselves plus analyzing on their own. We do a lot of self-serving analysis, and then we use our product analysts to go deeper into things that require bigger dives in SQL.
I think there could be tension between any of the functions. Part of it is building trust and the other part is figuring out what the customer ultimately wants and how they behave. It’s figuring out the speed to market for these different ideas and where we do A, B, and C tests. We compare both versions and see how the customer behaves, and that’s the ideal scenario — let’s just let the customer decide.
On the B2B side, we don’t necessarily have the volume for testing things, but we can create a quick prototype, get in front of some customers, and let the customers tell us what they think. PMs have often been proven wrong by something that their instincts told them had to be true.
Very recently, we were doing a test on some of our landing pages and deciding which elements to keep or remove. We get a lot of traffic through SEO, and there are certain things that we have on our website that are sort of untouchable when it comes to SEO. My instinct on many of them is that they’re not actually providing any value to users and I thought we should remove them as a test to see what the impact would be.
We removed some of the SEO elements of a page that I thought were just filler and not providing any value, and they actually tested down. Customers were actually getting value out of them. Every day I’m proven wrong on things that, again, are hypotheses. It’s all up to the users to help us validate or invalidate whether we’re right.
They’re all not exactly the same. We have this internal debate all the time. How many Rome walking tours do you need? I don’t think there’s a right answer. It depends on all the different nuances of what makes this tour different from the other one.
If you really start digging into it and look at the attribute level, they’re very different. Sometimes it’s the duration, sometimes it’s the things you get to see. There are a bunch of different variables that make those tours different and make it so different people would want different ones. It’s our job to help boil down what are those most important attributes and let you filter down to find the ones that best meet your needs.
We’ve basically decided we want to be really, really good at our core and want to take as much of the friction out of the core experience as possible. But I still think plenty of innovation can happen there.
We’re the first to solve a lot of these problems for the industry. A big problem that hasn’t been solved by us or anybody is pick-up logistics. One of the biggest points of customer anxiety is the morning of a travel tour and knowing when they’re going to get picked up. What’s the car going to look like? How do they know? Where should they wait?
That’s a debate we have constantly because we sell about a hundred different categories of experiences. Tours are our bread and butter, but we want to be really good at other activities too. We sell WiFi cards, but that’s not our core business. It’s a value-add for our customers that we have it in our marketplace, so we’ll keep it, but that’s not where we’re going to invest in being a 10 out of 10.
I know you’re doing some hiring right now and I was curious about Viator’s core values: aspire to lead, relentlessly curious, better together, serve our customer always, and strive for better, not perfect. Which of these do you feel is most important when hiring for your team?
I love all of them and I definitely had a hand in helping shape them. Striving for better, not perfect is something that we look for when we’re hiring product managers specifically. We look for people who are willing to move a bit fast, ship something that’s not perfect, get it in the hands of the customer as fast as possible, and then let the customer beat the guide of whether something’s going to work or not. And not every product company does things that way.
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