Thursday, January 01, 2009

Negative Feedback is a Privilege

Responding to a spate of criticism from Digg customers, founder Kevin Rose shared his sense of the negativity leveled against Digg and its people. He assured his customers that Digg reads their feedback and that their ideas help to shape Digg.

It can be rough to take negative feedback from customers for a product that you're pored a lot of time into, and maybe Kevin is responding with fatigue rather than from unchecked, personal bias, but his response provides a good example of a product management anti-pattern:

"While we don't respond to every comment thread, do know that we do read them and your constructive suggestions do make it into our product roadmap."

While I would certainly hope that all product managers are blessed with constructive feedback, it's not the role of product management or product design to dictate feedback protocol to customers - especially irate customers. A product manager who does dictate protocol is stepping over the lines and allowing his personal biases and sensitivities to color some of the most valuable customer feedback that he can get.

Irate customers are either people with pervasive anger management issues, or people with higher sensitivities to your product experience that cause them to have greater adverse reactions than average customers. Those angry customers who are truly angry people might well be easily dismissed - as long as you know them well enough to know that their anger stems from something unrelated to your product experience. If you can't differentiate between angry people who happen to be your customers and angry customers, then you're in no position to discount angry feedback. And if you're the kind of person who requires all interactions to be positive in nature, then you're in no position to be in a customer-facing role.

You need serious "people skills" to play a customer engagement role, and by "people skills" I don't mean some sterile naivety that trivializes the range of human expression into a narrow band of emotion that includes only the safest and most genial modes. I mean skills in being a person who is comfortable with the complete range of human expression. In a customer-facing role with clear responsibility for why your product behaves the way it does, you're bound to come across a very broad spectrum of human responses as a result of the intersection of your product and real people who've used it.

Those irate customers are the early warning system for your products flaws. They know now about the things that are going to hurt you later. If you chose to project your personal belief that all interaction must be genial, then you're choosing to cut off a vital flow of critical information that you can't afford to ignore.

The products that we create are expressions of ourselves. Like it or not, these expressions affect people emotionally. They might evoke satisfaction or they might evoke anger. We have to be willing to accept that sometimes the product experiences that we create are indeed offensive to our discerning customers. The appropriate reaction to having imposed on a customer with offense even when the customer responds in-kind - is reflection rather than retaliation.

We have no right as product makers to express offense to our customers through our products and we should be prepared to take our lumps when we do so - especially because it will lead us to valuable insights into our products that we may not have yet been privy to. Reflection will train our awareness to be able to more clearly see what our more astute customers see, and will inevitably teach us to detect and avoid flaws during product design.

It's up to us to see the wide spectrum of customer response as inherently constructive, whether we feel the response is positive or negative or even irate and possibly even as offensive as the product is itself. When we put product in the world that brings frustration into the lives of our customers, then we darn well better be equipped to deal with them when they honor us with their input and not seek to dismiss, dismantle, redirect, or trivialize.

As a product manager, Kevin Rose is on the right path with this open dialog with his customers, but he failed to insulate the sanctum of customer relationship from his own exigencies where the niceties of protocol are concerned. He may have aggravated the situation with the already-irate customers, and this could end up isolating him from valuable, actionable, and vital information about his product.

We have to be willing to see the truth of our products. We have to be willing to discipline ourselves to meaningfully engage with customers regardless of the timbre of their feedback. Feedback is a privilege, not a right, and it's certainly not an annoyance - even when it feels annoying, or even downright aggravating.