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What’s your vision for your product? Odds are, you’ve thought a lot about that question. But if someone asked, would you know what to say? And if that same person asked how you planned to achieve your vision, could you spell out a roadmap?

As executive vice president of product at PERQ, Stephanie Ragozzino’s job is to define that roadmap for her company. When she joined in 2014, PERQ specialized in marketing through incentive-based promotions, but they wanted to broaden their business model. Stephanie helped PERQ pivot from services to product. The platform they built surpassed $1 million in annual recurring revenue within the first twelve months and $3 million in the next twelve.

Stephanie’s talent lies in translating a company’s long-term goals to specific product development milestones. She’s able to identify how the product needs to change and then lead her team to execute those changes effectively. For innovators who want to do the same, she shares four practical tips for defining—and then achieving—their vision:

1. Listen to Your Customers

No matter what your strategic goals are, you won’t be able to achieve them without first understanding your customers’ mindset.

Whether you want to grow your audience, increase sales, reduce churn or something entirely different, start by listening to what your customers want.

Years before joining PERQ, Stephanie worked in client success at a marketing software company. As she heard from clients about their pain points, she couldn’t help but pass along suggestions to the product team. Eventually, the firm’s co-founder told her she needed to translate her passion for helping clients into working directly with the product.

“I would tell him, ‘You need to fix this, and you need to fix that,’” she remembers. “He said, ‘Come over to product and fix the problems that you see in client success.’” She took him up on the suggestion, and because of her background, was able to help the product team make huge improvements. The lesson has never left her. As she and her team at PERQ identify product updates, they prioritize listening to clients.

For instance, when PERQ wanted to expand into new verticals, the team started by talking with people in those industries. Clients usually don't know what they want, so our strategy was to ask them what keeps them up at night or about their key areas of focus in the next year. “Our product marketer got on the phone and just cold-called,” Stephanie says. “That's how we learned all of the business pains. … We can then take that into consideration and come up with a new offering simply based on their feedback.”

When you seek customer input, product development becomes mutually beneficial. You help clients solve their problems, while also achieving your own strategic goals.

The Takeaway: Your vision shouldn’t be created in a vacuum. In order for your product to line up with your strategic goals, it has to match what your clients need. And the only way to find that out is to listen. Their priorities must inform the entire product development process, and your success outcomes should line up with theirs.

2. Choose Your Product Battles

If you’re really listening, your customers will tell you about more pain points than any one company can solve. You have to pick and choose which problems to address—and determine which align most with your priorities. “I have lots of ideas of how we could make the products better … more than what we can actually do,” Stephanie explains.

PERQ’s leadership team works together to evaluate and prioritize these ideas. “I’ll write ideas up on the whiteboard, and propose, ‘You have $100. How are you going to spend it?’” Stephanie says. “We’ll talk through the pros and cons of each idea, and I get to understand how each does or does not fit into the overall business strategy.”

Stephanie says they look for three criteria as they consider an idea. It must make a product more usable, more sellable, or more efficient. “Sometimes we’re building a feature in order to reduce time to customer value, to increase our margins,” she explains. “Other times, it’s all about the look and feel. For it to be sellable, it needs to be sexy.”

And no matter what, an idea always needs to map back to the business’s strategic goals.

“If I'm going to build it, it must align with something that’s going to bring a return,” Stephanie insists, adding that the most necessary updates aren’t always the flashiest. “Sometimes you have to pitch some of the not-so-pretty stuff.”

The Takeaway: Listen to your customers, yes. But put their feedback through a filter. A customer may say, “I wish there was a button on this page”, which doesn’t necessarily mean that page needs one. It might speak to a larger problem.

3. Unify Your Team

Knowing which problems to solve doesn’t do much if your team isn’t aligned. Whether you’re updating a product or developing a new one, it’s vital for every department to be involved. “It’s a collaborative thing,” Stephanie says. “I'm stewarding the product...I'm not the sole decision maker.”

The larger your company is, the harder it can be to keep everyone informed and engaged. Stephanie saw this phenomenon in action at PERQ. As the company grew, it got more and more difficult to stay in touch. “We couldn't be together as much,” she says. “So I thought, ‘Okay, we need a structure.’” Now PERQ schedules regular “fireside chats” to give employees an opportunity to interact with other teams, share updates, and ask questions.

In these fireside chats, Stephanie can test out product ideas before developing them. If the team thinks an idea is a no-go, then I have some work to do before it's ready to release. “I always say that if I can't sell my internal team, then there’s no way I’m gonna sell anyone else,” she says. “I better go back to the drawing board.” Another important way to keep everyone on the same page is to focus on shared goals, rather than department priorities.

“If you give the product team different goals than the engineering team—then it’s going to naturally create friction,” Stephanie explains.

Your people should not only understand your long-term strategic plans but also feel incentivized to carry them out.

In 2017, for example, PERQ set company-wide delivery goals for each quarter. This meant everyone shared the burden, not just the engineering team. “You would think, ‘Oh, why does the product team have a delivery goal for technology?’” says Stephanie. “But for us, the common goal keeps everyone working together.”

The Takeaway: Few things can derail progress toward your vision faster than conflicting priorities amongst your team. Get all team members on the same page by listening to every stakeholder and communicating shared goals.

4. Measure Your Results

It’s tempting to build a product and call it a day. But without hard metrics or client feedback, you can’t be certain your product is accomplishing your goals. Stephanie and her team at PERQ use data to evaluate how well they’re solving the client pain points they set out to address. For example, if a client wants to increase in-store sales, Stephanie can look at web traffic conversion as a leading indicator.

“We create a benchmark using a handful of conversion metrics known to drive customer purchases. From that benchmark, we calculate what's possible with our product, compare it to other clients' performance, and then track progress and improvement to that number. It’s really great to be able to tell clients that we have increased the web lead time-on-site from 3 minutes to 12 minutes and leads are 2x more likely to purchase.”

PERQ checks these stats frequently to track the health of their clients’ businesses and the success of their product. “We have dashboard that we look at every week,” Stephanie says, adding that it’s a good idea to review these with clients and ask for their observations and feedback. “We’ll say, ‘Here are the numbers that we have. What are you seeing on your end? What’s working? What’s not? Is there anything you would change?’”

Don’t get discouraged if you initially hear negative feedback or if the metrics aren’t what you’d hoped for. Stephanie says product teams can’t expect to get everything perfect the first time, and companies should set aside funds to address additional updates. “Every release we reserve a portion of resources, maybe ten percent, in trying to address that,” she explains.

On the flip side, as your product improves, you’ll start to gather positive feedback and data. Stephanie says she makes a habit of sharing these success stories during PERQ’s fireside chats. Celebrating customer success helps your sales team make a case for the product, and it can also energize the entire company by reminding your employees why they do what they do.

The Takeaway: Take the guesswork out of evaluating your product by establishing key metrics and seeking honest feedback. Use this feedback to identify issues and celebrate successes.


Evolving Your Vision and Keeping Up Your Momentum

The development process isn’t over when you roll out a new product or update. Rather, it’s beginning all over again as you refine and re-cast your vision. “We’ll continue to pivot,” Stephanie says, describing PERQ. “That’s the nature of it. As we learn who we are and who our customers are, what’s working and what’s not, we need to be able to react to that and adjust the product to meet those ever-changing needs.”

It’s a never-ending process—one that requires patience, insight, and cooperation. It starts with listening to customers, then prioritizing the most important updates and create a sense of collaboration so your team can get the work done. Then you evaluate and continue improving—allowing your vision to mature alongside your company, your clients, and your product.

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