Service Is Your Product, Too

As product people, we have a general disposition to put the product ahead of everything else—even, sometimes damagingly, the end-user.

Service Is Your Product, Too

As product people, we have a general disposition to put the product ahead of everything else—even, sometimes damagingly, the end-user.

But what happens when your product becomes commoditized? How do you differentiate in a world where who has the most or best features really doesn’t matter anymore?

That’s something I’ve seen many scaling product companies struggling with as I mature in my product management career, and it’s becoming more obvious that there’s a key differentiator that all-too-few product companies really appreciate.


Credit: Growth X Academy

Shaping Things Rather Than Helping People

In his 2005 missive on the future titled Shaping Things, Bruce Sterling writes about a future in which 3D printing effectively trivializes the act of producing physical products.

As it becomes trivial to manufacture an infinite number of different objects from an infinite number of blueprints which themselves are collaborated on by a near-infinite number of designers, the value of an object itself is lost.

Ultimately, Sterling’s thesis statement asserts that as this shift in value occurs, the way we perceive value, and how all of commerce, economics, and culture function will change as a result.

It’s a bit heady, but as I was reading it, I couldn’t help but note the parallel between that world view and my own when it comes to software products.

Ctrl-C, Ctrl-V, Buy Now

The same is increasingly true of software products. API platforms, SDKs, all manner of libraries from gems to packages, and the collective intelligence of communities like Stack Overflow make it increasingly trivial to build moderately successful software products.

When combined with even a ham-fisted approach to the science of design and iteration, even moderately successful products can be made wildly successful (albeit in the absence of ego-led development).

The dev teams today are solving scale challenges that their forebearers couldn’t have imagined, to be sure, but when it comes to straight up “app” writing, putting together a software product that solves a problem is trending towards being as trivial as printing a 3D model with a 3D printer.

So in a world where everyone can develop the same features in about the same time, and software is a commodity, what is left as a primary differentiator for an incumbent or entrant to distinguish itself?

Your Service Offering Belongs On The Box

Service, of course. And I don’t just mean support and refunds, but true customer success: helping your customers be successful when using your product to ultimately drive more business.

While we can automate increasing amounts of reality and problem-solving with advances in machine learning and networked software, good service remains an elusive and truly hard-to-replicate competitive differentiator for many a company.

Amazon and Zappos and Union Street Hospitality Group are, assuredly, three really good examples of this.

But you can see this approach in many different places, in companies large and small; in the many organizations that prioritize and package Customer Success alongside the Boxed Product®.

I get why many tech start-ups shy away from this as they scale. Scaling CS is very difficult; human resources are too often the only major cost centre for a software company, and with no other tweakable levers to keep the bottom line black, cutting back on people and divesting in people-centric operations seems an easy salve to the hard pain of scaling.

Alas, underinvesting in service has left many scaling software start-ups reeling as their businesses fail not only to generate customer referrals—a priceless commodity in an age when cost of acquisition rates for customers are soaring for everyone—but also to position themselves strategically and defensibly in a world where a disruptor can go from non-existent to market-winning faster than ever before.

That’s why Customer Success is such a critical differentiator. Particularly for B2B, great CS is both your viral marketing referral generator and your competitive differentiator.

Think about it: it’s really hard to build a great team, and it’s harder still to equip and organize that team towards success. That’s preciesely why that service, when achieved, should be part of the product offering and should be as much a consideration of the product team as the features that dot the app we and our teams so slavishly put on the App Store day after day.

Indeed, I believe (and the industry seems to be reaffirming) that only those product companies that can pair the robotic and increasingly-automated production of their wares with service that adds the humanity (and truly differentiator value) back into the mix will be truly successful in the long run.

That’s why it’s encumbent on us as product managers to view CS with the same passion, obsession, and excellence that we view our builds, bullet points, and branding.