Aug. 24, 2022

How Product Managers Can Stay Connected to Their Customers With Harpreet Ahluwalia of Altruist


Customer feedback informs the product development process. But, how do you ensure you’re connected to your customers and getting their feedback? In this episode of Product Chats, Harpreet Ahluwalia, Chief Product Officer at Altruist, explores this topic with us.
 

 

Time Stamped Show Notes

Getting into product [01:06]

Staying connected to your customers [03:04]

How feedback informs the product development process [05:20]

Tying product satisfaction to customer retention [06:07]

Balancing customer wants with strategic priorities [07:56]

Showing you value feedback even when you don’t act on it [09:29]

Measuring customer success [11:27]

Failing quickly and pivoting [13:48]

Using feature flags [14:24]

Organizing a product team [16:10]

 

 

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Transcript

Kayla: Thanks for tuning into Product Chats. On today's episode, I talk with Harpreet Ahluwalia who is the Chief Product Officer at Altruist, and we talk about staying connected to your customers and building your team. So don't forget to leave us a review and enjoy the show.

Kayla: Hey Harpreet thanks so much for coming on today.

Harpreet: Yeah, thanks for having me.

Kayla: Well in a minute or less, can you tell us about yourself?

Harpreet: Sure. My name is Harpreet Ahluwalia. I'm a Chief Product Officer at Altruist. Altruist is a FinTech company. We're based in LA, and our platform is used by independent financial advisors. They use it to manage their business operations and also to manage money on behalf of their clients.

Harpreet: And before this, I was VP of Product at another LA startup that's now really sizable company with I think 2000 employees. I was a really early employee there. I helped build and scale the product team as VP of Product.

Kayla: So with that, like, that's kind of your more recent years. I'd love to hear about like how you got into product and what that looks like.

Harpreet: Yeah, sure. So I went to college at Berkeley, UC Berkeley, and afterwards I worked as a sales engineer for a startup. My role was really to take our platform and go out to our prospective customers and show them how that platform could meet their business needs. So we would build a lot of proof of concepts and participate in these vendor bakeoffs where, you know, they would bring in other vendors and we had to prove why our platform was a better solution. And as a result of playing that role, I got really, I built a lot of experience in just understanding customer needs because we were going to different prospects throughout the world.

Harpreet: Our product was used by companies in the US and in Europe and so very different business processes and unique business needs. And I got a ton of experience being able to go into a new environment and really understand the business context and being able to map our product to solve those business needs.

Harpreet: And I thought that was a really good jumping point for a career in product. And I was lucky enough to get my first product management role at salesforce.com, which was, you know, sort of an up and coming company then. And had a really phenomenal product team. And I really learned product best practices, how to build a product that end users would love to use and not just something that lives on the shelf.

Harpreet: So we had really engaging customers in our product development process and getting feedback, working with UX and design, focusing on not just the features that we're building, but the utilization and adoption of those features. And so, you know, I spent three years in a product role at Salesforce, and then I've had a variety of increasingly leadership positions in product.

Kayla: So I wanna tap back into something. You mentioned understanding your customer needs, and that kind of goes into the piece of something that we're gonna talk about being connected to your customers. So let's kind of dive into that and tell us a little bit about staying connected to your customers and what that looks like.

Harpreet: Yeah, sure. Since we started Altruist about three and a half years ago, from the very inception we wanted to build a product that was unique in the industry and really focused on independent financial advisors.

Harpreet: So we defined a really clear target customer and we set out for the months to survey and interview those prospective customers, really understanding what is their current tech stack look like what are their business challenges? And quickly, we learned that the biggest challenge that independent financial advisors face is just efficiency in their operations. So managing clients takes a lot of time and energy and cost. And as a result, they can only serve, you know, certain scale of clients and our mission at Altruist was to make financial advice more accessible, more affordable. And we really wanted to make sure we built a product that allowed advisors to scale their practice so they could serve more clients. They could serve them more efficiently. And so, you know, from the very onset, we were deeply embedded with our target customers.

Harpreet: And one of the things we implemented early on is Canny. So thanks to the product that you guys have built, it allowed us to make sure that we had direct participation and direct feedback loops from our customers and Canny is embedded in our products. So anytime a customer signs in, you know, they can, they are single signed on into Canny and we have hundreds and hundreds of ideas and feature requests that our customers have given us over the last three years.

Harpreet: And our product team is deeply engaged there. We respond to any idea that gets over 20, 25 votes. And we acknowledge it and we, you know, our user research team and user experience team then sets up time with those customers that have asked for something and really understand what is the underlying problem that they're trying to solve.

Harpreet: That's a big source of input for our roadmap. And I can go into it later to kind of how we take a lot of that feedback and then, you know, use that to inform our product decisions and our product development process.

Kayla: I say, let's dive into it now. Right? Like how does that inform kind of your process and the product that you're building out?

Harpreet: Yeah, sure. So, you know, in terms of our product prioritization and development process, we start every quarter with overall company objectives and themes. So for example, we have a financial model that says, you know, how many customers are we trying to acquire? What customer segment are we going after from a marketing standpoint? What are our assumptions around revenue expansion and retention from our existing customers? Are there any key partnerships that we're pursuing this year? Are there any new product lines that we're looking to stand up that will lead into our revenue model? Once we have sort of overall company objectives, we look at what are the metrics that we're trying to drive to support those objectives.

Harpreet: So for example, we have a retention goal that may be substantiated with a metric around product satisfaction. We do a quarterly product satisfaction survey across every area of the product. And so, you know, we might say like in order to drive certain customer retention, we think we need to increase the product satisfaction score in these three product areas from, you know, 8.2 to 9.1.

Harpreet: It's not as precise, but you know we know that we need to make improvement in these areas. And then we go and source ideas and input and the way we do that is, you know, sort of explicitly what our customers asking for, and we use Canny extensively for that, but we also observe, you know, how are customers using our product?

Harpreet: How are they interacting with it? Where are they running into roadblocks? And we use things like Full Story and our own data infrastructure to get to those insights. And then our product team spends a lot of time with our customer facing, whether that's sales or support to learn, you know, what are they hearing from both prospects and customers?

Harpreet: And then once we have all of this customer input, we really leave it up to each of our product teams to propose, you know, what are the most important things that we should be working on and what that sort of aspirational roadmap is assembled. Then we go through a very extensive planning exercise with our product engineering and design team to green light certain initiatives and define dependencies and rough timelines. And then we start the product development process, and some of these times get crisper as we go through the quarter, but really it starts with having overall company objectives and metrics, and then triangulating that with all the source input and then coming up with the most important problems that we wanna solve for that quarter.

Kayla: And so with that, right. So you're listening to your customers, you're getting feedback. How do you make sure that you are kind of prioritizing what they want, but also prioritizing what's strategic to Altruist?

Harpreet: Yeah, I think we wanna be very careful to not build everything that customers are asking for, you know, one of our core value propositions and differentiators as a product is that we are making financial advisors more productive and more efficient.

Harpreet: And so we wanna be really be building features that help them implement industry best practices and not just cater to, you know, the very unique workflows that they may have created in the past as a result of technology deficiencies or just the unique way in which they're trying to run their business.

Harpreet: We're trying to take sort of the most widely applicable ideas, and the most widely unsolved problems for our customers and make sure we're focused on that. We don't wanna become, you know, a feature factory where, you know, there's hundreds of knobs and workflows that a customer can implement.

Harpreet: We wanna make sure that we are taking a stance on what the best practice is. And in order to arrive at that we wanna spend time with customers and really understand not just what they're doing, but why are they doing it? And is there a better way to do that.

Kayla: And I think that kind of touches, right, the why in understanding your customers because people could request like certain features, but if you actually get to the why, maybe there's a different feature that a lot of customers want. On the subject of like listening to your customers and you're listening to their feedback, how do you also set that expectation, like Hey, we're not gonna actually build out everything, but we care about what you have to say. So how do you kind of balance those two things?

Harpreet: Yeah, that's a good question. You know, I'll give you an example, like in the financial services industry, most financial advisors, are just sending like a printed performance report at the end of the quarter to their customers and, you know, that's just something that the customers have come to expect. And it's one of the ways in which financial advisors prove their value to their customers. Like, you know, here's all the things that I did during the quarter for you. And, you know, here's what your account summary looks like, and here's how your accounts performed.

Harpreet: And so a lot of advisors asked us to just build that feature for them, like, a report that they could generate at the end of the quarter and email it to their customers as a PDF. But when you really start talking to them about why they're trying to do that. You know, I think there's sort of two core problems they're trying to solve.

Harpreet: One is they wanna make sure their customers understand how their accounts are performing. And then the second is they want to make sure their customers see value. For our product effort is, you know, what is that underlying problem or goal that the customer has and are there different ways in which we can solve that?

Harpreet: In our case, we have a mobile app that customers can log into any time and see the performance of their accounts. They don't need to wait till the end of the quarter to get this PDF from their advisors and they can get push notifications when there's some you know, critical things that are happening in their account.

Harpreet: For example, advisor could set a threshold that says, you know, if the account moves more than 10%, you know, notify me or notify my client. So I think there's more unique ways in which we can, or more efficient ways, in which we can solve those problems. And so we don't wanna be fixated on what the advisors have done in the past but really understanding what their goals are.

Harpreet: And I think we've done good helping our advisors see as a core way in which we build products here at Altruist

Kayla: So that kind of talks about right the success setting your customers up for success. So how do you measure that success at Altruist?

Harpreet: Yeah, I think we have two or three ways in which we look at the outcomes that our products are delivering for our customers.

Harpreet: One is very qualitative, which is, you know, are customers happy with our product. Do they acknowledge that we're providing them value? And you know, we do that through surveys. So we have a quarterly product survey. Where we ask them a series of questions around very specifically, you know, has Altruist made you more productive?

Harpreet: Has it saved you time and money? Has it helped you provide a better client experience? We wanna know, you know, have we moved their sentiment in these areas? And then we also asked them about, you know, different areas of the product and how satisfied they are with those areas. There's a very qualitative way of measuring this.

Harpreet: Since we do this quarterly, we're able to see whether we're making progress in each of those answers. And our roadmap is really tailored to make sure we're making progress.

Harpreet: The other is just product adoption. So anytime we launch a feature, we have goals or success criteria that the PM establishes at the onset and those goals might be adoption or engagement related.

Harpreet: So recently we launched an integration with a CRM vendor that's really popular in the financial services space. And, you know, we know that, you know, we have an overlap of, let's say 250 customers between our customers and theirs. And so we set a goal of, you know, within 30 days we want 90% of those overlapping customers to have activated this new integration.

Harpreet: And at launch, we work with our product marketing team to build, go to market plan that makes sure that we're gonna hit that 90% goal in 30 days. And that might involve a joint webinar. It might involve in-app notifications, email campaigns, knowledge base articles that support that our support team can use to have those conversations.

Harpreet: And so those are roughly two areas like qualitative measure of how customers perceive the value in our product, and then more quantitatively, you know, measures around adoption, engagement, in some cases around revenue goals or customer acquisition goals.

Kayla: And so with that, right, I'm guessing most of the times you reach those goals, but in the cases that you don't like, how do you pivot and kind of fail quickly enough so that you haven't put too much resources into something?

Kayla: And it's not as valuable to your customers as you wish it was.

Harpreet: I think our goal is to be constantly shipping, and so we try not to wait for let, even in the case of this integration, you know, I think there were multiple integration points, but we want to get to that first integration. You know, we had a workflow where we were integrating the CRM data and while we had defined three or four workflows where this data was gonna be integrated, we start by shipping one.

Harpreet: And we typically build most of our features behind a feature flag. Today we use Split.io to manage, you know, feature flags and activation. That way we're able to quickly launch new capabilities to a select segment of customers and actually resource which customers we should initially be launching with from Canny.

Harpreet: If we have a feature where, you know, 150 customers have voted on something. We will pick, you know, maybe the 10, 15 that were most vocal or the most early voters of that feature. And we'll reach out to them and say we've built this capability. It's very rough. It's an alpha version.

Harpreet: Are you interested in testing it out? And more than often, our customers are very eager to test out new features. And so we can turn that on just for them and, you know, get feedback very quickly and be able to iterate before we roll it out to a wider set of customers.

Kayla: And I think that's great, right? Because you're listening to which customers want it. And then you're testing out with those customers versus kind of doing like a randomized group of maybe these customers care about it, but you kind of have that data. Okay, these customers want this. Let's actually let them test it out and see how they feel and see if it aligns with what they're looking for. Right.

Harpreet: Exactly, I think the fact that, I think what's really amazing about working in B2B software products is that you have these customers that are very clearly expressing a need for the capabilities that you're building and you can name those customers. Time to get their feedback during the design process. And then you can explicitly roll things out to them to get their early feedback before you feel confident, rolling out the feature to everyone else. And so, you know, that's one of the things I love about working on B2B products and, you know, having access to tools that let you, you know, engage with customers.

Kayla: I wanna pivot a little bit. So we've been talking about customers, but I wanna talk more about like team building now, and I know you've built some teams, so let's talk about how you kind of like your view on how to organize a team.

Harpreet: Yeah, that's a great question. I do think the way you organize a product team has a huge impact on what you build, how you prioritize things, what outcomes your team is incentivized to drive. And so putting a lot of thought into how to structure that product team. And it's something that you have to revisit again and again, as a company scales. At my previous company, we organized the product team around user personas.

Harpreet: So our product was a B2B product, but it was used by multiple departments and user roles within a company. So we had, you know, marketing users, we had sales users, we had users that were out in the field, performing work for clients. We had back office users like accountants and inventory managers and people who process payroll.

Harpreet: And so we thought that the best way to organize that product team would be to really align each PM with one or more user personas, so they could really understand the workflows, the motivations, the pain points, and the outcomes that those user personas were looking to drive for their company. And that helped us create real connection between our PMs and the users of the products that they were building.

Harpreet: And you know, where that sometimes falls short is there's certain workflows that touch multiple user personas within a company. You do not just have PMs aligned with user personas, but then sometimes you have to create these sort of cross functional groups of PMs that are aligned around workflows as well.

Harpreet: So that was a model that worked really well in that world. At Altruist we really don't have that many user personas going after independent financial advisors and typically within an advisory firm, you really have advisors and you have some admins. And so it didn't make sense for us to organize around user personas. And so instead we've organized around workflows. So for a typical advisor, they have workflows where they are prospecting customers, bringing in leads and working those leads and convincing them to sign up with an advisor. So we have a PM that's responsible for the prospecting workflow once an advisor signs or enters into a relationship with a client then they start opening brokerage accounts for those clients.

Harpreet: And so we have a PM responsible for account opening. Once those accounts are opened. Advisors typically work with their clients to move money into those accounts or move securities from other accounts. So we have a PM dedicated to the transfer of securities or money into accounts. And then finally, once those accounts are opened and funded the financial advisor is managing the investments in those accounts.

Harpreet: So trading, rebalancing, tax loss harvesting. So we have a PM team that's dedicated to the trading and investment management side of things. So here, I think we've really tried to align the PMs around user workflows and set incentives for the PM teams to make those workflows as efficient and as delightful as possible.

Harpreet: So going back into our earlier conversation around, you know, how do we measure outcomes? Each of those PM teams then have goals around both the qualitative measures of their workflows and as well as the quantitative measures in terms of how fast can people move through the workflow? How often do they engage with that workflow and things like that?

Kayla: I think that's really interesting what you're saying, right? It's at the end of the day, it's about fully understanding your customer and what they're going through and intimately understanding what their process is, right? Because at your previous company, right, it was, Hey, I understand this persona and what their workflow is, and now you're kind of breaking it up at a more granular level because you don't have different personas. You just have different pieces of the product. So I think that's really cool how you've broken it down in a very strategic way. So that those product managers can really just focus in and fully understand and spend as much time as possible, understanding that part of their workflow.

Harpreet: Exactly. And, you know, I think it also allows us to optimize those workflows over time because we, our product teams are long standing.

Harpreet: So, you know, we don't just dissolve these teams. Each team has an engineering lead and a product lead and a design lead. They build over time an expertise in either those user personas or those workflows and real empathy for those customers. The product tends to get better over time.

Kayla: And I think off of that, like, we've been talking a lot about like leadership and I think this is a really good nugget for any like aspiring product leader. So on that note, what is one piece of advice you would give to an aspiring product leader?

Harpreet: That's a tough question. I mean, I spent most of my career in B2B, product management. And I really believe that one of the advantages that early stage or newer B2B software companies have when competing with more established companies is, the ability to be much more embedded and responsive to their customers and be able to involve customers in the product development process in a very transparent way.

Harpreet: And so I think thinking about that from the very beginning, building a product team is really important, you know, but when we started Altruist we used Intercom as a product where our product team was playing the support role. We didn't really have a support team, but we wanted to make sure that our customers could reach us and get their questions answered.

Harpreet: And, and the best way to do that was just have, product managers have the Intercom app on their phones. And, you know, we were small enough that we didn't have dozens of customers, but those customers could reach out and directly talk to a product manager. And so we weren't interfacing through other customer facing teams.

Harpreet: And that's been part of the DNA of our product team is, you know, we're not even as we've scaled, we're not relying on sales or support or customer success, to translate for us what our customers are asking for. We've done everything that we can to make sure that we don't lose that direct connection as a product team with our customers. I think that our customers have rewarded us for that by being more patient, being more engaged and helping us shape our product.

Kayla: So something you mentioned was scaling. So what roles are you hiring for?

Harpreet: We have a lot of open roles, both on the, kind of the financial services, product management side of things, where we're building a lot of plumbing to improve the delivery of investment advice.

Harpreet: And so, you know, there's a lot, lot of open roles on where we're looking for real domain expertise on the financial services side, but then we have a ton of roles open on our core SaaS application where what we're really looking for are just great B2B, B2C product managers that know how to interview customers, how to uncover problems, meet with their design and engineering counterparts to solve those problems and have experience launching products so that we get the most maximum impact of what we're building and really partnering with our go-to market and product marketing teams. I think we have two flavors of product roles you know, people who are really interested in kind of the back end of financial services and then people who are really interested in working on delightful end user experiences and workflows.

Harpreet: I think you can go to our website. We're right now, hiring for half a dozen product roles.

Kayla: Perfect. So if you're looking for a product role reach out.

Kayla: And then where can people find you?

Harpreet: I'm on LinkedIn. So, you know, I'm not super active on social media. I'm on Twitter and LinkedIn feel free to reach out if there's any in which I can help share my experience, or if you are keen for a role with a rapidly growing LA FinTech, please reach out to me.

Kayla: Well, thanks for coming on today.

Harpreet: Yeah, thank you for having me. I really enjoyed our conversation.

Kayla: Thanks again to Harpreet for joining us on Product Chats today. If you want more product management resources, feel free to head over to canny.io/blog and we'll see you next week.