The Focal Point Blog // Business Strategy // Dave Annis // April 27, 2021

How We Shaped a Customer-centric Product with Our Product Advisory Council

These days it seems that just about every company says they’re customer-centric. We hear all the time that everything every company does is for the customer first and foremost. If you’re like me, you can’t hear this line without a little bit of skepticism.

When Tom O’Neill and I started Parallax in November 2018, we knew we wanted customer-centricity to be a core part of our product strategy. But we didn’t just want to talk about it; we wanted to actually be about it. (Much like how we didn’t want our company values to be B.S.)

It would’ve been easy for us to start Parallax and build the product based on our prior experiences. Tom and I had each run software consultancies and digital agencies for over 14 years, and we had learned a lot of hard lessons along the way. We had strong points of view on what the problems were and how to solve them. But before we wrote a line of code, we wanted to first talk to people who fit our ideal customer profile to challenge our assumptions and make sure we were actually putting customers first.

What resulted from those early meetings and discussions (and advice from one of Parallax’s investors) is a group we’re still proud of to this day: the Parallax Product Advisory Council (PAC).

Putting customer needs first

We can’t take full credit for the PAC’s success. Most of the credit goes to our engaged members and an incredible early advisor by the name of Marty Sanders. Marty is a Tech Partner at Rally Ventures, the lead investment firm that backed Parallax. He built an ultra-successful product advisory council during his time at Compellent, a software company that would later sell to Dell. Marty got the idea to start the group after his personal experience buying a truck. He realized when test-driving trucks that many had silly features that didn’t serve the driver’s experience well. It was obvious the truck companies hadn’t asked end-users what they wanted before they designed and built the truck. He knew he didn’t want to make the same mistake at Compellent.

Marty Sanders, Rally Venture Tech Partner

Marty brought the insight back to Compellent and built a product advisory council. It became a core part of Compellent’s product strategy to engage the group to inform product design and implementation and nurture its next round of customers. We knew we wanted to do the same to ensure we were always putting customer needs first. Marty shared helpful tips on how to set up Parallax’s PAC for the greatest impact and success — and we owe him lots of gratitude for that.

What makes the Parallax PAC unique

Product advisory councils aren’t necessarily unique to Parallax. Many companies have them, each calling them by slightly different names (e.g., customer advisory board, customer user group). We engage our members in many of the ways other advisory groups do, through workshops, surveys, user interviews, design sprints, webinars, and focus groups. What is unique about our PAC is that:

  • It’s made up of both Parallax customers and non-customers. The PAC’s objective is not to pitch Parallax to our members (though, of course, we’d love if they’d use it — and a secondary objective is to nurture future customers). The primary business objective is to gather insights from a group made up of our ideal current and future customers to inform strategic product development. We knew we could only do this if we committed to really listening to the PAC and engaging them regularly through honest conversations.
  • It’s now a relationship-oriented, non-salesly network of over a hundred digital agency and tech consultancy leaders who aren’t just a part of it to provide Parallax with product feedback. They also joined to meet peers they could collaborate with to share ideas and best practices to overcome the toughest agency business challenges. (Seriously, at our last in-person meeting, we had to bribe people out of the conference room and to the bar with drink tickets.)

The PAC keeps Parallax focused on building something of value and helps our customers feel a part of something bigger. Read more about this in our latest TechCrunch feature.

How the PAC has made Parallax better

We recognize that our customers are in the professional services industry, and most aren’t developing and selling SaaS products like us and Marty. But we think you can apply the same concept to your agency or consultancy if you want to understand your customers better, build better service offerings around actual customer needs, and plan future service offerings based on increasing demand.

These are three key ways our PAC has made Parallax better for our customers and us:

1. We understand our customers way better

We know a lot more about our current and future customers because of the PAC, which means we can build a better product for them. The PAC helps us clarify our customers’ most pressing pain points and challenges, and many of Parallax’s product solutions have originated in PAC meet-ups.

Perhaps the biggest benefit of the PAC is that it helps us speak our customers’ language. The words, language, and taxonomy we use in our product, customer communications, and marketing come from insights gathered about our customers’ day-to-day work lives. The PAC has helped us become more sympathetic to their needs, which creates a better experience for everyone.

2. We can more effectively prioritize which features we develop

The PAC has also helped us challenge many of our assumptions about which features to focus on next. There are numerous examples of our PAC members helping us avoid spending a serious amount of time developing features that probably didn’t have the value we thought they would. This has kept Parallax focused on what we do well (project pricing & planning, project accounting, revenue recognition and resource management) instead of trying to boil the ocean and replace all of our customers’ tools. Instead of building new accounting, CRM, and project management tools, we focus on improving data governance by integrating Parallax with the tools our customers already use and love.

The insights we gather from the PAC help us identify which features will make the most significant and most immediate impact on our customers’ businesses to point our internal resources in the right direction.

3. We can build credibility with current and future customers

Any product company’s first customers are super important because these are the ones that not only help determine product-market fit but can be leveraged for references and referrals. Our PAC played a significant role in us building the best v1 of our product possible and securing our first customers. Today, those customers are some of our best and most referenceable. They’ve helped us gain credibility, which continues to multiply as we add new customers and expand our ideal customer profile to broader markets.

Our PAC has also provided a place for future prospects to engage with Parallax — even if our product isn’t quite ready for their company size or industry. This helps keep these prospects warm and engaged, but more importantly, it gives us a way to learn about them before we enter their market or target their customer group. That way, when it is time to expand our reach to them, our product will be ready to support them.

Want to join our PAC?

New members are always welcome to our PAC. People working in professional services that benefit most from being part of the group include anyone who:

  • Would benefit from being introduced to and working with other digital services companies and tech consultancies to solve business challenges
  • Is looking to expand their network of peers they can ask good questions of and get good answers from
  • Would like to invest more in their business and industry
  • Wants to play a role in developing the next best SaaS platform for digital services companies 😉

If this sounds like something you’re interested in, reach out to us today! We’d love to connect you to the community.