Leadership Skills

How to Drive Product Strategy With a Personal Touch

How to Drive Product Strategy With a Personal Touch
Image credit: Shutterstock.com

Small businesses need all of the help they can get, and Terry Hicks, chief product officer at Infusionsoft, certainly lends a hand. Hicks comes from a very strong leadership background at Intuit, where he grew QuickBooks Online by almost 100 percent and built Intuit’s payments business from nothing into $600 million. His driving force powers Infusionsoft’s product strategy, product management, payments, and business development. He also leads Infusionsoft’s marketplace of apps and services.

But what Hicks does exceedingly well is put the customer first. His passion for entrepreneurs and commitment to the success of small businesses is evident within moments of conversation. It was obvious to me in our interview that the natural progression of Hicks’ leadership is to teach his team how to summon success from each customer they serve.

I was able to catch up with Hicks and learn more about his continued success, and how his transition to Infusionsoft has progressed:

When did you start at Infusionsoft? I started at Infusionsoft in July 2015. Before I was at Infusionsoft, I spent 15 years at Intuit, mostly in the small business group. I helped to start a payments business there, led product management for payroll, led product management for the entire small business group, and was the general manager of QuickBooks Desktop. Then I moved over to the Global Business division and worked on globalizing QuickBooks Online and many of our products so we could take them outside of the US into other countries. The last two years I was at Intuit I was the vice president and general manager of QuickBooks Online.

Looking at it from the outside, what things were immediately apparent to you when you moved to Infusionsoft? My immediate impression of Infusionsoft, the product, was, “Wow, this is a really powerful piece of software that does a lot for automating sales and marketing.” But I could see that we needed to streamline the getting started experience so customers could get that great power much more easily, and shorten the time it takes to get the benefit of the software.

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How have you gone about that process? I’m a product guy, and I’ve worked on small business products for a long time. The first thing that you have to do is put yourself into the mind of the customer -- the kind of the customer you’re going to serve. You know that they have little time and little patience, so if it takes a couple days to figure something out, chances are they are going to be moving on to something else. Just based on pattern recognition, you can see there is something off here. Then, you have to develop a theory of what it’s going to take to simplify it. What’s getting in the way?

For example, the first time you look at a spreadsheet in Excel, you open it up and it’s a big grid -- there is nothing there. If you don’t have perspective on what you’re trying to accomplish, that makes it hard. Even if you do have a perspective on what you’re trying to accomplish, there’s a big learning curve. For example, how does the command line work? If you want to do anything really interesting, you have to figure out pivot tables, macros, and all of that kind of stuff. There is a huge amount of power there, but if you don’t have a specific goal in mind, you’re going to be wandering through the woods.

Then, even with a goal, some step-by-step instructions or a template would help. The thing that I looked for at Infusionsoft was how we could put a pattern in place so that customers can figure out what their goals are, what they’re trying to achieve, and then draw on some pre-built campaigns or templates, or get help from a partner who would help them figure out how to get done what they wanted to achieve.

So, what have you managed to achieve in the time that you’ve been here?
Well, as most companies move along and teams start working on things, their arrows of direction may be slightly off axis if teams aren’t deliberate about things. So, the first thing I wanted to do was get everyone focused on what we’re trying to accomplish. What’s our product vision, what’s our strategy and what are the biggest problems to solve for customers, so we can overcome that?

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In the first month, of course, it’s all relationship building because it takes time for people to get to know you, trust you, and talk openly about what they’re thinking. Then, in the next couple of months, it was about getting the team aligned to the specific product strategy, the specific vision, getting the executive team behind it, getting the board behind it and then starting to execute. Building that vision and alignment -- if you don’t do that, you’re going to have people going all over the place, it’s chaos. It takes a little bit of time, but you have to have that important step.

Then, once you have everybody aligned, you can start to say, “Okay, we have something special that we do.” We call it the Small Business Success Method: we walk small business customers through an assessment of their business to figure out what they do well, who buys their product, and what goals they are trying to achieve. Just by doing that, you’re really narrowing in on what somebody needs to do on the software. Instead of learning “the software,” broadly speaking, you’re learning how to accomplish a very narrow and specific task to gain benefit and improve your business.

This was in a lot of people’s heads; we were already doing these assessments. But everyone did it a little bit differently, so we did a bunch of experimentation to get a process that was much more consistent and got more consistent results. The result that we’re looking for is a customer walking out of that assessment saying, “I know what I need to do next.”

Once we get that in place and know what customers need to do next, it’s about the most common plays that small businesses want to run, when they’re just getting started with the software. It might be a lead generation; it might be getting referral business; it might be a follow-up sequence insuring engagement; or it might be an upsell sequence. Those are common plays that businesses run, so then we can codify those plays into action plans. We can then talk to customers about what steps they can take in the software, what inputs they need, the content -- the checklist of stuff. Then in addition to that, we can compliment that with some other products and services.

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So, we start with, “What do you want to do,” and not, “Here are the step-by-steps on how to do it.” We’ve been able to shrink what took months or weeks to get value to weeks or days. Our goal is to get that to minutes, but that’s a big initial step.

I feel like the biggest accomplishments have been aligning the team with the strategy and focusing on ease, simplicity, and time to get to that benefit, and then getting the team aligned against very specific actions to make that happen.

In addition to all that, there is a lot of feedback from customers, saying, “Hey, this could be better,” like our email builder, or the findability of solutions in the marketplace could be improved. So we’ve done a lot of that work as well, continuously refining the product, making it easier, more streamlined, and more accessible, improving the number of connections and iterations that we have, and continuing to build that out.

There is a lot going on, but what I’m most proud of is getting the team aligned on a specific direction -- that being real focus on ease of use and getting customers to benefit. We’re defining our pattern of success for how we’re going to make that happen.

Are there challenges between doing that on desktop versus mobile devices? Where are you going with that? Desktop is Web, and you want to make everything as responsive as possible. The biggest challenge we face with mobile devices is you really have to think: what is the role of the individual when they are sitting in front of this device? You have to be very disciplined because customers will give you a false read sometimes and say, “I want to build a campaign on my iPhone!” I’m pretty sure they really don’t want to. They may think that’s what they want, but the implication of doing it is pretty complicated. They’d be pinching, zooming and sliding stuff around, and it would be a pretty horrific experience.

So, we try to figure out the segmentation of jobs that go across the devices. What the user is typically looking at is more status results -- how that is performing on the mobile devices, whereas creation lives more on desktop devices. Now, as we continue to simplify the experience, if you’re just pulling an action plan or maybe a pre-built campaign out of the marketplace, there might be no reason why you couldn’t add your logo and your address, and do a simple campaign in a light-editing way. We’ll continue to explore with that. But working with a blank sheet of paper would be like running Excel on your iPhone and building a complex macro -- it’s not going to be a great experience.

When a new customer joins Infusionsoft, what does setup look like? There are two components to the set up. There’s the software setup, which includes going into the branding center, adding your logo, address, and all of that information about yourself that will be used across a number of assets. Then, there is bringing in your customer lists, starting to prepare the activities that you’re going to do and supplementing the content; there’s that software side of it.

The other component is every customer that joins goes through what we call “Kickstart.” It’s basically a six-hour consultation with a coach who does an assessment to figure out what are you trying to achieve, and tries to understand what assets you already have. Do you already have good positioning? Do you have a clear customer target? Do you already have messaging? Do you already know the differentiations for your product and why somebody wants to buy it, instead of something else? We really hone in because, surprisingly, a lot of small businesses don’t.

That’s a very heavy set up and hard to scale, I would imagine. For the current model, going through the Kickstart is what leads to success for the customer. Part of what we need to do is figure out what part of the process needs to be human. Because, by talking to the human they move you forward, and you’re not going to get that from the software. Maybe we’ll be able to make it more friendly and some of it could be more automated.

I reflect on a product like Turbo Tax. Millions of customers sit down and go through the questions to set up Turbo Tax, and it’s not an easy process. As you can imagine, part of what goes on in our Kickstart could happen in more automated tools. But, it starts with defining that step-by-step process with enough variability that makes you feel the job can be done for you, but with enough consistency that it can really be programmed.

How do you do that? Well you come up with a prototype. You can think of the Kickstart experience like one big prototype agile-learning machine, and our assessments are the next iteration. We’re doing the real work; its not like this is a test. We’re learning how to productize that, get that consistent understanding of where the points of variability are, make actionable recommendations that people are very clear about and have a plan to address exactly what they’re saying.