Defining the PM job

We see this picture of PM  in the middle of UX, Tech and Business a lot:

We use this graphic as well – it’s been a nice, introductory way to speak at a high-level about the product management function, and it highlights the importance of partnering with these three important peer functions. Product management works with business leaders/marketing teams, engineering teams and UX teams. They sit in the middle often translating from one to the other. But we’ve found this picture hasn’t been sufficient to talk about what the actual day-day job of a product manager should be. When you introduce a graphic that describes the function as this small overlap of a venn diagram – it discounts the sheer amount of work and knowledge that’s required to actually do the job.

So, we came up with a new graphic:

 

This may not be the best drawn diagram, but we want to introduce it as a better way to talk about how a product manager should approach their job. We think this is far more representative of the actual  work that we all do on a year-round basis.

The outer circle goes to business. The product manager has to start with a broad and deep understanding and translating company vision, strategy and business objectives. These are the guardrails of our thinking – and we always need to go back to making sure that the decisions and tradeoffs we make are the right call for the business, industry and environment that we work in. We’ve seen lots of features go into products that customers ignore because they don’t make sense with what the business and the customer is trying to achieve.

The next inner circle is technology. This goes beyond partnering with the engineering or development team. The product manager doesn’t (often) code, but they (should) understand what the technology can/cannot do, understand the technical architecture and be able to ask the right questions, and have an engaged and knowledgeable discussion about alternatives. Without getting deep into the technology, the product manager is at the mercy of whatever technical recommendation is made. We’ve seen far too many product leaders and teams fail because they didn’t ask the right technical questions, because they weren’t prepared and didn’t dig deep enough. Technology is a core part of the job – better get used to getting into the details.

The core of the job is customer. Every part of the job is customer-driven. Whether that’s considering the product roadmap (what’s important to the customer), writing user stories (customer needs), doing customer research (talking to customers) – we could go on and on. Every single piece of work that’s produced is with the customer at heart. The product manager represents the customer at the table – they advocate for the customer, deeply understand their needs and ultimately make product decisions with the customer first, with the optimal technology and meeting business objectives.

When you look at product management this way – we believe you get a sense of how the pieces fit together and a better understanding of the expectations of the job. This isn’t a job for sissies!

Let us know what you think! We’d love to get your comments here, or send an email to vidya@productrebels.com and tell us how you see the PM job.

You want a resolution that guarantees results?

Now that it’s a few weeks past New Year, and we’re back heads-down hard at work – let’s sneak in a new year’s resolution that will make a real difference. Commit to talking to your customers at least once a month. That might not seem like a lot to those of you who are planning customer interviews weekly, building them into your sprints and calendars. However, for many of you, we know months can go by without reaching out. We’ve worked with a lot of company’s last year – some large and some in very early stages, and we’ve been shocked at how many don’t talk with customers regularly. It doesn’t matter how established the company, the attitude towards interacting with customers, getting their feedback and acting on what you learn is a habit that’s formed and established by the product leader. If the discipline isn’t introduced, then customer interaction doesn’t regularly happen and acting on customer feedback becomes an ad-hoc activity, usually something to consider when things go very wrong. The start of the new year is a great time to hit refresh and think about how you’d like to establish new important habits. For your product and team, there’s nothing that will make more of a difference than creating a new practice around regular customer interaction. Whether you’re testing a new idea, building a prototype, or launching a new feature – make sure that a customer test gets built in. Put it into your planning, write it into your calendar, make this a resolution that you can commit to.

Influence & Talking to Customers

Recently, we gave a talk at a big product conference. We talked about influence – how product managers need to exercise influence more than most. After all, we are usually individual contributors, accountable for a product -needing everyone to align and work together, but not directly managing anyone. This conference was in Eastern Europe so we were particularly interested in hearing the questions – was it the same situation for product managers across the seas, as we’d experienced in the US? Who were they most trying to influence? Our biggest surprise was where the majority of the questions centered – the frustration for product mangers to be “allowed” to talk with customers. The area where product managers most wanted to exercise influence was with their managers trying to getting access to customers!!

This wasn’t a one-off question, the majority of people who asked us questions during the talk, and then after at our booth – was all centered around this critical need. One that we take for granted – the ability and access to connect directly with customers. We wanted to share some of the tips & ideas that came out of these conversations because perhaps more people than we realize are in the same situation. Wanting to follow best practices in iterating and getting customer feedback, but finding themselves unable to do so. Here are a few of the ideas we discussed.

  1. Use a proxy. When your customer is 5,000 miles away, watching what they do is not a readily available option. For one PM, they were building a system for a library and really wanted to understand behavior and interaction with their app. Our suggestion? Find a local library and talk to the people who were working and using library services. After accounting for cultural changes – what are the main questions? What were the surprises? How could you use your findings to show the importance of understanding local behavior.
  2. Start with a Hypotheses: When you can’t get to customers, it’s really helpful to form a strong hypothesis – one that is very specific, measurable, has an outcome that can be tested. Rather than continuing to write user stories in a vacuum, figure out what you believe to be true – force yourself to confront the biggest unknowns you have, and then look for ways that you can quickly and cheaply test your assumptions.
  3. Use remote tools: While we don’t like surveys very much – it’s better than nothing. Can you put together a more comprehensive survey that gets to people’s attitudes and beliefs? Recently, we conducted a large survey that was based on earlier market segmentation. In that, we looked for people who were lapsed members. Adding a question at the end to see if they were open to a quick conversation, is an easy and cheap way to find customers who will talk with you. Then use skype to connect with them – fast, cheap!
  4. Get scrappy. When you can’t find your exact type of customer, in the same industry – getting any feedback is preferable to none. This is where you rely on friends & family to give you their perspective. Still go through the process of writing a learning plan & have your objectives…see what surprises come up. Don’t dismiss their feedback too fast if they don’t “get it” – this could be an indication that there’s an issue or gap in your thinking about your product.
  5. Seek forgiveness not permission. This isn’t an option we readily recommend, and our least favorite…but in some cases, when you are just not given time to do customer research – you may have to resort to some stealth interactions. Go outside your regular working hours to talk to customers – slowly start feeding ideas from customers into your meetings. In particular, share insights that came directly from a customer interaction to show value. Sometimes you need the proof before you get the permission.

Tell us what you’ve done when you’ve struggled with getting customer feedback. We want to hear more tips & methods – what’s worked and what’s not? Leave us a comment now.

Love is all you need

Do you love your customer? Do they love you? Think your relationship will last? It’s valentines day tomorrow, send a little love towards your customer – reach out, connect, check in.

Want an easy way to start? Pick a customer, any customer and send them an note – maybe it’s an email, maybe you know your clients well enough to address a real letter. Tell them they matter, you’re listening, and are ready to hear what’s on their mind. No strings, no offers, just a genuine way to say you care.

Happy Customer Love day.

Don’t hide from your customers

Product managers can make it really hard on themselves to connect with customers. If you really want, you can go through a ton of hoops, create meetings, send emails, read spreadsheets, schedule meetings a month out because it’s sooo hard to get together. All for the sake of learning more about customers.

Or, you could just talk to someone now. If you’re with a big consumer brand, go to where you sell your products and hang out. Wait until someone picks up your product and just talk to them. If you’re launching a new product, do the same thing for a competitive brand. If you with a b2b company, figure out how you talk to a user. Buy your favorite account manager a coffee, and get setup to talk to client.

If you’re going to be a product rebel and make a difference, you’re going to have to get scrappy about how you learn. Figure out the fastest, easiest way to connect with a real customer (or prospect) today. Don’t setup a meeting to think about it, do something today. It will make all the difference.

Getting your boss to listen

We get asked about influence a lot. Seems like all product managers feel like they’re constantly trying to persuade one person or another. After all, we have all the product responsibility and no direct reports. Trying to persuade your team, your peers and your boss can seem daunting. The one thing that always works? Don’t make it your opinion – use your customer’s voice. Whenever you’re trying to change someone’s mind about priorities, or direction, or market fit (or anything)…it’s way easier when you tell a customer story, show a customer picture, play a customer video. No longer is it about what you want – you represent your customer. What is your customer asking you for? How do you know? Of course, you have to get out there and be talking to your customers all the time. All the time. Don’t rush out just before a key meeting. Make it a regular habit – and start collecting all those great stories. You’ll have exactly the right story at your fingertips just when you need it.

Make it matter to your audience because you’re serving a critical customer need. Your powers of influence will magnify magically. Give it a try.

When all else fails – go talk to a customer.

Having a bad day? Got another twenty powerpoint revisions to make for that big meeting tomorrow? The one that seems to come around every 5 minutes… Well, here’s your first rebel challenge. Block two hours tomorrow (and if that’s really not possible, find a time next week). Put it in your calendar now (that’s right, open up your calendar and book it. We’ll wait). Now search through your customer logs and find a customer who’s given you feedback recently. It doesn’t matter if it’s praise, a complaint, or just a question. Send them an email to request a 15 minute discussion about your product. Now do that again two more times with two more customers. You just booked yourself time to talk to three real people about your product. Excited?

Now all you need to do is put this script into your calendar, and you’re all set:

Hi, I’m <name>, a product manager with <name of product>. I know that you recently used our product, and I’d really appreciate hearing a little about your experience. This won’t take more than 10-12 minutes of your time. I just have three questions:

  1. Can you tell me a little about why you chose the product, and is it meeting your expectations? (why, why not)
  2. What would you recommend about the product? (Why)
  3. If you could change one thing, what would it be? (Why)

Thanks so much for your time. Talking to customers is one of my favorite parts of the day, and I so appreciate your willingness to share your experience with me.

That’s it…go ahead and modify it whatever way you prefer. But if you don’t have time, you still have this waiting in your calendar, ready to go. No excuses! Go on product rebel, make a difference to a single customer, and maybe learn something that will make a big difference for you.