Product Marty Cagan

The Customer Letter

In this article I’d like to discuss another discovery framing technique.

For smaller and more typical size product discovery efforts, the opportunity assessment is usually sufficient.  But when embarking on a somewhat larger effort, there may in fact be multiple reasons, or several customer problems to be solved, or business objectives to be tackled, and in order to effectively communicate the value it may take more than the few questions of an opportunity assessment.

A typical example of an effort of this size would be a redesign.  There are likely several objectives in the redesign, and maybe it is intended to both improve the experience for current customers as well as perform better for new customers.

One of my favorite technology-powered product companies is Amazon.  They have consistently innovated, including several truly disruptive innovations, and have shown they can continue to do this at scale.

In my view there are many reasons for this ongoing product success, from leadership, to talent, to culture, and especially to their sincere passion for taking care of customers, but there are a few techniques that are central to how they build product, and one of them is referred to as “the working backwards” process where you actually start the effort with a (pretend) press release.

The idea is that the product manager frames the work ahead of the team by writing up an imagined press release of what it would be like once this product actually launches.  How does this improve the life of our customers?  What are the real benefits to them?  You’ve all read a press release before; the only difference is that this is entirely imagined.  It is describing a future state we want to create.

It is so tempting for product teams to immediately slip into an enumeration of all the features they plan to build, with little real thought into the actual benefits for our customers.  This technique is intended to counter that, and to keep the team focused on the outcome, not the output.

The actual reader of this press release is the product team, related or impacted teams, and leadership – it’s a terrific evangelism technique – if people don’t see the value after reading then the product manager has more work to do, or perhaps should reconsider the effort.

Some people also consider this a qualitative demand validation technique (if you can’t get your team excited, maybe not worth doing), although it’s only validating demand or value with your colleagues rather than real customers, so I think of it primarily as a framing technique.

In any case, a former long-time Amazonian who joined Nordstrom a couple of years ago, Walker Lockhart, shared with me a variation of this technique that was developed and refined at Nordstrom.

The idea is that rather than communicate the benefits in a press release format, you describe them in the format of a customer letter written from the hypothetical perspective of one of your product’s well-defined user or customer personas.

An imagined letter sent in from a very happy and impressed customer explaining to the CEO why he or she is so happy and grateful for the new product or redesign.  The customer describes how it has changed or improved their life.  The letter also includes an imagined congratulatory response from the CEO to the product team explaining how this has helped the business.

You can hopefully see that this customer letter variation is very similar, and is intended to drive much the same type of thinking.  A press release version includes a customer quote as well.

I like this customer letter variation even better than the press release style for a couple reasons.  First, the press release format itself is a bit dated – the press release certainly doesn’t play the role it used to in our industry, so it’s not something that everyone is familiar with.  Second, I think it does an even better job of creating the empathy for the customer’s current pain, and more clearly emphasizes to the team how their efforts can help the lives of these customers.

I will also admit that I love actual customer letters.  I find them to be extremely motivating.  And it’s worth noting that even when a customer letter is critical of the product, it helps the team to viscerally understand the problem and they often feel compelled to find a way to help.