In most organizations, the critical skill for a successful product manager is best summed up as influence at a distance. Whether the product management function reports in to sales, marketing, or a standalone business unit, there are a distinct set of best practices your team can follow to be successful.
Architect and optimize the channel
If account executives are not selling your product, then you and your team are not going to be around for very long. A fortunate few may have a dedicated sales force with total focus on your product. Most product managers, however, need to compete with other project managers for the attention of sales people. The formula becomes the following: you sell to your sales team and they sell to your customers.
First and foremost, you must keep your messaging simple. Salespeople, just like all other people on the planet, are bombarded with messages. Though your product may have fifty incredible features, you want to arm your sales force with just two things. First, you should train them on the fundamental value proposition of the product. When sales people are in a meeting and a prospect articulates a problem that your product uniquely addresses, you want a spotlight to shine on your offering in the account executive’s mind. Second, you should ensure that the sales person has an unambiguous understanding of what is in it for him or her personally if he sells your product. Though many rewards are financial, never underestimate the power of recognition – especially public recognition among one’s peers.
With only one of you and a great many salespeople, you need to be strategic about where you direct your effort. Some product managers focus on broadcast messages to the entire sales force. Others target the head of sales hoping for messages to work their way down. Both of these approaches are suboptimal and the reason has everything to do with basic organizational behavior. The bottom line is that people do what their managers expect of them. Just think of yourself, for instance, sitting in a large, all company meeting where you CEO lays out her high level vision for the next year. If your boss does not set objectives and manage daily expectations to that vision, then you and your colleagues are unlikely to react. Taking this message to heart, you will have the most impact as a product manager if you concentrate your effort on first line sales managers.
I can hear your objection already – “but, there are too many of them!” To avoid this pickle, you simply need to recognize another key organizational behavior principle. Human beings, yes that includes sales managers, move as a herd. Even in a herd, a few brave souls wander into uncharted territory looking for sustenance. In the early stages, these people will appear as widely distributed bright spots. As you identify them, interview them to learn their best practices and lessons learned and systematically promote those findings to other managers. As you help these teams win business, they will virally communicate their success. Ultimately, products perform best when sales people can ask other sales people for advice. When that happens, you have prevailed.
Know your end customer
If you market exclusively to your sales force, then you will rapidly lose touch with the changing needs of your customers. Perhaps more importantly, you may fail to capture innovative, unconventional uses for your product. Just think of Arm and Hammer baking soda, which is no more than run of the mill sodium bicarbonate in a box. By experimenting internally and by listening to customers, their product has found its way into laundry detergent, toothpaste, swimming pool cleaning tablets, carpet deodorizer, and many other uses.
The easiest way to keep in touch with what your customers care about is to involve yourself in specific deals. Though you will need to establish trust, most sales people will willingly pull you in as an expert to help them close business.
A more powerful approach for staying in touch with the needs of the market is to create a continual feedback loop. Quantitative surveys are a necessary but insufficient approach. You should also have a regular cadence of live, qualitative interviews. Most critically, this is not something that you can delegate; be there to listen and to ask probing questions.
During the course of the conversations that you have with new and prospective clients, with sales people, and with other interested parties, you will have your hands full with a laundry list of innovations. Since time and money are limited, you must prioritize those items that will have the greatest impact on your business.
Hence, as a product manager, you should focus on big, hairy projects. (Unfortunately, this also means that you will likely end up de-emphasizing maintenance.) As you place bets on a limited set of initiatives, you should monitor in an unbiased way so that you can reprioritize, iterate, and occasionally terminate. Take the time to choose projects that are likely to succeed and marshal every available resource. You want to become known as someone that achieves results, not someone that is constantly tinkering and changing direction.
Introduce change gradually
Everybody likes to have a clean slate. Consequently, most people craft plans to roll out change on a massive scale. However, the most effective product managers introduce change gradually. Whenever you would like to make a modification, ask yourself how you can run a pilot. This test will not only provide you with fact-based evidence that the change will work, but also give you guidance on ways to improve how and what you roll out. In addition to dedication to using pilot programs, you should also seek to break change into multiple phases, each providing the ability to communicate unambiguous short term wins.
Here are the concepts you can immediately apply to become a great product manager:
- Architect and optimize the channel
- Know your customer
- Prioritize innovation
- Introduce change gradually