PM Process: The Customer
To every organization or service provider, the claim is the customer comes first. But, I am writing the customer part in the Product Management process in the end. One primary reason is to ensure, your house is in order before you invite your guests. Some of you may agree, and some disagree. Feel free to provide your opinions. After all, discussions only build a better understanding of systems and processes.
Customer is the King
The customers’ wishes should be the highest priority. But, in dealing with the customer, some people will not tell the customer the complete picture. For a product manager, there is never one customer. There are always multiple customers who have to be satisfied with the same product. Essentially, a product manager cannot make every customer equally benefitted from the product. Calling out that tradeoff is crucial. Metaphorically, a King sits on a high pedestal and not easy to communicate. To a Product Manager, a Customer is a Trusted Advisor. A product manager who nods to every customer request is lying to the customer. It’s never going to be practical to do so. The idea is to take the input to evaluate against inputs from other customers and come up with a plan to deliver the best solution that gives the maximal value to the overall customer set. A good product manager will say NO to the management and even to the customers if needed. If you are not used to a no, maybe the organization is not prepared yet to hire product managers. Many startups and smaller organizations find it hard to understand this.
The Customer is Just One Stakeholder
The definition and understanding of the customer are crucial to a product management job. I think in the simplest form, the person who pays for the bills is the customer. However, in most cases, he may be a finance or purchase person, having very little understanding of the product. All he may be interested in is discounts and savings for the organization. He also knows the users of the organization have a significant influence in making the decision. The sales teams will walk away with doling out a discount offer, while PMs will fight for getting the influencer’s mindshare of the product. You can charge a premium only when you can show the value add. A good relationship with influencers is significant as they establish an association beyond one-time transactions. They also ensure up-sale and cross-sale opportunities. While evaluating a customer’s IT security infrastructure, we realized the customer was on an unsecured connection. While our focus was user authentication, we also managed to make a case for a few server certificates, a perfect cross-selling option. It was not even a sales discussion as such.
Talk to a Customer in the Capacity of a Product Manager
PMs should talk to the customer where they can exercise the discretion of a product manager. Many PMs spend hours discussing sales negotiations. In most such cases, the learning for the PMs is minimal. Your sales team pretty much takes you to the meeting, stating they need a logo and expect you not to say no to any of the customer’s wishes. And, you will never build that solution, as the proposal is not viable for the market. A PM will spend days and months wasting in such discussions where the outcome is non-consequential; compare this with walking up to your existing customers, talking to them about their business plans, and building a focused product for such a set of customers. A capacity of a PM is when the product manager can listen to the customer air his opinion on the customer’s approach. Suggest him on his process and even to be able to talk about competing products and take customer’s direct feedback and opinion. Such communication does not work in sales calls. They do not work in support calls as well. When a customer discusses with a product manager, the product has to be meeting the customer’s needs. There are no emergent support issues. Every customer call is a support call otherwise and an unnecessary value drain for the discussion.
Some perfect examples are Microsoft and Adobe. Both had core business in desktop software products with almost no presence in the cloud. Naturally, movement into the cloud was detrimental to both the company’s business. Adobe, in collaboration with its customers, redesigned its product portfolio. They made it relevant to cloud and analytics — an example of product managers working with the customers and building solutions in line with the future of the customer’s business needs. Microsoft changed its focus from desktop-centric products to cloud and server-centric products. In some cases, Microsoft collaborated with competitors to sustain its cloud business, although it hurt it in specific markets and point products.
Be a Trusted Advisor to the Customer
When I visited an East Asian country to meet a customer, the general mood was somber. When I sat through the technical team, we managed to resolve a few of their support issues and expedite the resolution of a few others. Soon the head of the IT team offered a meeting the next day to discuss the long terms plans of his department — something he had been avoiding all along. The customer will only open up when he realizes you understand the domain and is not giving her unnecessary false assurances. Moreover, he went on to tell about his engagement with the competition, including the pricing insights. In short, we broke the ice by resolving the customer issues and not by overselling a promise in the future. An offer of a product commitment in the future cannot meet the accounting revenue recognition standards. They have to be in the books as liability only. In short, product managers should establish a mutual professional trust with the customer as advisors that each can benefit from the other. While sales calls get benefited from personal and relational trust, PM engagements are more focused on building professional trust. Something Guy Kawasaki says: “take a t-shirt with you.”
In short, customer management is a crucial aspect of a product management experience. Yet, the tone needs to be building an assurance for the product. People talk of Steve Jobs and his life a lot. But if you look closely at every one of his interviews, he communicated on his products only. It is in the interest of PMs to develop connections and associations with your customers’ aspirations in using your products. That association shall build a long-term relationship with your company and brand image. No one has been fired by choosing IBM or the likes.