I often coach organizations to beware of having a customer centric roadmap, and when I first bring that up I receive a good deal of pushback. Actually, I generally get looks of astonishment or looks of regret that they brought someone that will advise that into their company. The comments are generally in the lines of “aren’t we supposed to be listening to our customers?” or “how can we not focus on what our customers need, we will lose them otherwise”.

Here’s the deal, I never say don’t listen to your customers, that is absolutely critical. Your current customers have very valuable insight about what’s good about your product, what’s missing and what drives them crazy, and by all means that feedback is important for roadmap development.

What I mean by avoiding a customer centric roadmap is to make sure you aren’t ONLY listening to your current customers. That can actually be very dangerous for the longevity of a product/company, particularly startups that land a few big customers and become “captive” to their every need in order to keep them onboard. It’s great to have a marquee names, but the big guys feel they own your roadmap once they have given you the business and it is critical to manage their requirements vs broader market requirements.

In a time when competitive differentiation can be very short lived, it is extremely important to continuously analyze the trends in the broader market arena as well as competitive offerings, and it is absolutely critical to listen to targets that are not yet customers.

Does your company have a practice of going back and evaluating lost deals in order to determine why a seemingly perfect prospect didn’t purchase? Does your product marketing team interview those customers, or at the very least the sales team? There is a wealth of information to glean from a lost sale- whether you lost to a competitor, budget constraints or just pure lack of action, there is a lot of information about what is not compelling customers to buy in those lost or delayed deals.

Does your marketing group consistently attend industry events, monitor the media, talk to analysts and end users about what is happening in your arena? Does your company have a practice of evaluating all the info gathered to determine if a shift in the roadmap is required to meet new competitive threats? There are far too many examples of companies losing traction by not recognizing competition coming at them from a different direction because their current customers weren’t asking for specific features- probably because they just didn’t know they wanted them just yet (RIM not understanding the impact of the iPod introduction is the most obvious example).

Bottom line, in order to stay ahead your team needs to constantly be asking questions, analyzing trends and paying attention to the whole market arena, not just the customers that are already on board. It is a balancing act keeping existing customers happy with new feature functionality while ensuring the roadmap also anticipates market shifts and competitive threats- but it is critical for success.