Fred Wilson has a great post about building a "customer-obsessed company" as opposed to a "technology-obsessed company." This is good advice and reminds me of a number of companies built during the bubble period which were technology companies in search of a problem to solve. For early stage companies building their business, some of Fred's advice includes investing "in the customer facing side of the business and in particular account management and customer service which are the "eyes and ears" of the organization and in product management (the "soul" of the organization) to synthesize this feedback into new and better products." One important point when working with customers is to make sure that you do not support too many "one-off" requests. You must be extremely careful to make sure that the features and fuctionality that you build are "market-driven" meaning a number of customers or prospects support them versus one-off deliverables.
I was just at a board strategy session with one of our new investments where we are in the process of ramping up the business. As we reviewed the 2004 budget and dove into the technology department and product deliverables for the year, it was clear that the developers were getting pulled into many different directions. This is a common problem. Many companies that bootstrap their businesses tend to have developers acting as presales support, post sales support, and customer service. Every second a developer is out helping with a customer is a second not focused on advancing the product. Every second a developer is coding is time not spent answering customer support issues. As you ramp, this is not an ideal solution. So our recommendation was to make sure that the company created a separate presales group/sales engineering group to work with the sales team and to make the investment now to create a separate customer service organization to build for the future. As Fred mentions, too many companies overlook the customer support side of the business. Many times, putting the right customer support processes and organization in place early can mean the difference between success and failure.
And yes, product management is an incredibly important role to fill early on in a company's life. This function should serve as the intermediary between market and customer requirements and engineering. If you have someone too close to sales performing this function, you may end up with a focus on short-term results where too many one-off requests are made to just close a deal. If your engineering handles this, you may end up with an over-engineered product that does not meet customer needs. Your product person should be in marketing with significant experience balancing the short-term and long-term needs of the various stakeholders. This includes gathering data from customers (direct meetings, customer support, sales team), prospects, analysts (yes it is a necessary evil), and your own team to prioritize the product "must-haves" for the next release.