Product Managers Need To Understand How To Upgrade Customers

by drjim on November 12, 2012

Image CreditYou can lead a customer to an upgrade, but you can't make them like it

You can lead a customer to an upgrade, but you can't make them like it

One of the joys of being a product manager is that our products are always getting better. What this means for our customers is a never ending cycle of upgrades. Something that is probably not talked about enough is the issue of how to get your customers to upgrade (although we do this so often that it really should be part of the product development definition). You really don’t want to have to support old versions of your product for very long, but customers fear change. What’s product manager to do?

The Problems With Upgrades

When we make our product better, it only stands to reason that our existing customers should be excited to get their hands on the new and better version of our product, right? Getting them to accept our latest upgrade should be something that each of us should be able to put on our product manager resume. Every time that we upgrade our product, the new version is going to be better in some way: faster, simpler, etc. However, there’s a problem here.

The problem with upgrades, from our customer’s point of view, is that the upgrade is different. If we’ve made a lot of changes to our product, then it’s possible that it may feel like an entirely new product. The upgrade represents change – and nobody likes change.

As product managers, when we show up on our existing customer’s doorstep and start to tell them how great our new and improved product is, we need to be careful. From our customer’s vantage point, having a new product does not necessarily translate into having a better product. Rather, what it means is that we have a different product. Customer’s don’t always see different as being a good thing.

How A Product Manager Should Handle An Upgrade

Upgrades happen. Upgrades are a part of life. As product managers it is in our own best interest to find ways for our customers to go ahead and accept our latest upgrade – among other things it can help to lower our costs of supporting multiple versions of our product.

How best to go about doing this is where things get tricky. Jason Fried is a co-founder of the online software company 37Signals and they recently went through a radical software upgrade process and learned a great deal in the process.

The most fundamental thing that they learned was that when it comes to upgrades, time is critical. New ideas like your product upgrade will take time for your customers to get used to. The last thing in the world that you want to do is to try to talk your customers into upgrading the version of your product that they are using when they are in the middle of using your product for some big project that they are involved in.

Instead, Jason reports, a better way to get your customers to accept your new product upgrade is to give them time. One way to do this is to invite them to check out the new version of your product without requiring them to upgrade to it. Let them discover what features it has that they’ll want to have. Given enough time, your customers can talk themselves into doing the upgrade – you won’t have to push them to do it.

What All Of This Means For You

Products change – we improve them and they get better. This means that our customers who are using older versions of our products need to upgrade our product every so often. This can pose a challenge for them. Most product managers don’t know how to deal with this situation – it was never part of our product manager job description.

Nobody like change and an upgrade represents a change for our customers. The wrong way to go about managing a product upgrade is to force or push our customers to make the change. They’ll just end up pushing back. Instead, we need to take the time and let them check out the upgraded product. Let them discover why it’s better and why they should upgrade. Then let them make the switch when they are ready to do so.

Allowing our customers to control when they upgrade the version of our product that they are using is the key to a successful upgrade. As long as they feel that they are in control, the upgrade will go smoothly and they won’t complain the next time that you show up with an upgrade – because you know that you will!

- Dr. Jim Anderson
Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World Product Management Skills™

Question For You: How often do you think you should upgrade your product? How often is too often?

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What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

So product manager, what is your life like these days? Are you dealing with long hours at work, demanding bosses and customers? Internal departments who don’t want to talk to you let alone do what you need them to do? An ever changing product development definition? I guess the concept of finding inner peace must seem pretty far away most days. Over at Google, product managers are experiencing everything that you are experiencing – and more of it. How do they deal with the lack of peace in their lives?

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