Steve Jobs famously said that customers don’t know what they want until they see it. While there is some truth to this, young startups shouldn't discount or ignore feedback from the people who have the power to make their product a success.

In order to build a winning product, entrepreneurs must strike a balance between creating their product in a bubble and catering to every customer’s demand. But when contradictory customer feedback starts pouring in, maintaining this balance is easier said than done. 

The following are five tips for incorporating customer feedback into your product without completely derailing your roadmap.

1. Set a Clear Vision

Most customers are not software developers, so it’s not their job to set the vision for your product. 

When customers take the time to give feedback, it will probably be an idea for how you could incrementally improve what they’re using. As the product developer, it’s your job to have a broad, strategic vision for your product and innovate ahead of the market, the competitors, and what your customers think is possible. 

Before implementing customer feedback, stop and ask your team what value it will add to the overall user experience and whether it aligns with the long-term product vision.

2. Prioritize Features and Enhancements

Oftentimes customers’ requests for added capabilities or improvements to current features are already in your product roadmap. When customer feedback corresponds with your product plan, use the volume of requests for a certain feature to prioritize stack and rank, perhaps bumping one feature up and another one down as you plan upcoming releases.

As your company grows and you receive increasingly more feedback from your customers, it can be difficult to decide what’s really worth implementing. Look for recurring requests from customers to cut through the noise. 

If you hear the same request 10 times, build the update. But unless your customer base is a few big enterprise customers paying $X million a year, don’t feel obliged to cater to the needs of every single customer.

3. Use Feedback as Color Commentary

We go old school and print out all of the relevant customer feedback when we’re launching a feature project and have the developers read through them. 

Our product management, UX and development teams find great value in reading the actual words customers use when giving feedback. Their words provide deeper insight into how they think about their problem, their usage scenario and their expected solution — providing great context from the real world.

4. Balance Feedback Against Initiatives Critical For Growth

If you spend all of your development resources knocking off the most requested customer features and failing to invest in growth initiatives, you'll be left with a very delighted (but very small) set of customers.

  • Onboarding & Payment UX: Very few customers will ask you to improve the onboarding experience for new customers or the payment experience. But the percentage of visitors who sign up, the percentage of trials who pay and the percentage of customers who upgrade are critical metrics for any SaaS company
  • Scalable infrastructure: Making sure you’re built to support your next 100,000 or 1 million customers isn’t at the top of your early customers’ wish list. Infrastructure improvements aren’t sexy, but they are critical for long term growth
  • High leverage partnerships: We prioritized integrating with Google Apps so that we could be a launch partner for their new Google Apps Marketplace. At that time, very few of our customers were asking for Google Apps integration. Most of them were asking us to build an Outlook plug-in (installed software — blech). But we made the right bet: we got great PR and a stream of high quality leads that resulted in a step function increase in our revenue

5. Create a Scalable System to Track and Review Customer Feedback

Without an effective system in place to manage it, the volume of feedback can overwhelm you. A system that works for 100 customers may not hold up when you reach 1,000 or beyond. Daily or weekly notifications of customer suggestions can allow the developers to scan through the latest feedback and take note of feature requests. It’s important to track and monitor how much time is spent on customer-requested updates so that the team doesn’t lose sight of the broader, established product roadmap.

Although some startups worry that longer term strategic development initiatives can get sidetracked by customer requests, make the time to review and incorporate customer feedback. We see delighted customers in social media waxing poetic about small enhancements just as often as they do about larger features. 

Your product team will gain a better understanding of what customers want, and your customers will love seeing a software company delivering the enhancements they asked for at a steady pace. Hopefully these tips help you find the way to leverage customer feedback to build a product that people are happy to pay for and eager to recommend to their friends.