Make Better Business Decisions
Keep improving your knowledge and skills. Learn how other product managers think and act.
Product Managers come in all shapes and sizes
They exist in virtually all industries from consumer packaged goods (such as grocery or retail products) to industrial products (such as equipment and components) to services (such as healthcare and financial offerings). Some product managers emerge from specialized MBA programs (such as the one at the Center for Brand and Product Management in the Wisconsin School of Business), but most product managers transition to the role from positions in engineering, nursing, computer programming and other disciplines. Not surprisingly there are both similarities and differences in the jobs of these varied product managers.
Depending on your industry, you may have significantly different roles and responsibilities than product managers in other industries. Digital product managers requires a subtly different skill set than those responsible for manufactured products. Or service products.
But there are some common elements. I will focus primarily on the most typical aspects of product management.
The materials below consist of presentation materials I have used, articles that I have written, and books I have published.
Be the Best in the Industry
Don’t overlook the basics of product management.
Remember that the best golfers, football players, fishers and other sportspeople know the importance of foundation skills.
All Visuals from The Product Manager’s Handbook – a full 178-slide deck!
This presentation is sort of a “picture-book” version of the Product Manager’s Handbook. It has chapter-by-chapter coverage of the illustrations. You can use it as a snack-size version of ideas to jump-start your brain, to identify which chapters you want to read in their entirety, or to simply refresh and expand your existing knowledge. Click on slide deck cover to download.
True or false: Product management is an entry-level position.
A Turning Point In Your Career
True or false: Product management is an entry-level position.
False. But there’s more to the story. In general, a comprehensive product manager job is not an entry level position. Most have had prior experience in diverse areas. On the other hand, some companies start with an assistant product manager (or product marketing manager) as close to entry-level, allowing the individual to move up to a full or senior position with experience. So there may be significant room for career gro wth.
Product managers exist in virtually all industries from consumer packaged goods (such as grocery and retail products) to industrial products (such as equipment and components) to services (such as health care and financial offerings). Some product managers emerge from specialized MBA programs (such as the Center for Brand and Product Management in the Wisconsin School of Business at the University of Wisconsin-Madison), but most product managers transition to the role from positions in engineering, nursing, computer programming and other disciplines. Not surprisingly there are both similarities and differences in the jobs of these varied product managers– and they can all learn from each other.
In working with thousands of product managers over the past two decades, I have repeatedly heard several common areas of inquiry. Here are a few of the typical questions (and an answer in a nutshell). What are the differences between business-to-business and business-to-consumer product managers? (Business products are generally more complicated than consumer products. The more complex the product and purchase process, the more likely a product manager will need a related technical background. In addition, the go-to-market strategy may be different. Both, nevertheless, should start with knowledge of targeted customers.) Aren’t all product managers product developers?(Some companies separate product management into upstream activities focused on development, versus downstream activities focused on marketing and lifecycle management. However, the majority of product managers are responsible for both.) How many products does a “typical” product manager manage? (There is no standard here. I have worked with successful product mangers responsible for one complex product as well as those responsible for hundreds — or even thousands — of related SKUs.) How do product managers work? (The vast majority of product managers function in a matrix organization where they have to accomplish their goals and execute their strategies through others. This requires significant skill in communication and influence.) Where do product managers fit in the organization? (Occasionally, product managers report to engineering, product development or even product management. But most product managers still report to a marketing function.)
The product manager’s job is to oversee all aspects of a product or service line to create and deliver superior customer satisfaction while simultaneously providing long-term value for the company. Note the critical implications in this statement. First, product managers have oversight of the product. They need to accomplish their goals through others. Second, the foundation goal is to deliver customer satisfaction—not just a product or set of features. While engineers and designers might have more insights into whether something can be built, product managers should have more market insights into whether it should be built. And finally, this must all be done profitably. Successful product managers need a solid business sense from financial knowledge to forecasting to pricing to operational effectiveness.
There is no ideal profile of a successful product manager. However, several traits, skills, and experiences are frequently identified as related to product management success. Frequently cited traits looked for in product managers include an entrepreneurial attitude, leadership, and self-confidence. Acquired abilities should include organizational, time-management, and communication skills. Sales proficiency and technical competence are also important in many industries. The importance of prior experience depends on the particular needs of the product management position. If highly technical, engineering-oriented knowledge is required, a background in engineering is appropriate. If an understanding of customer applications is desired, a sales background in the industry is appropriate. If knowledge of large-market trends and competitive positioning is important, marketing research and/or advertising experience are desirable.
“Upstream product management requires long-term thinking.”
Upstream Product Management
There are two fundamentally different – through related – classifications of product management functions: upstream functions and downstream functions. Upstream functions deal with the strategies of product roadmaps and new product development efforts. This usually includes identifying critical portfolio needs, and then providing marketing leadership throughout the development process up until launch. Downstream functions deal with ongoing lifecycle management. Some medical device and diagnostic manufacturers (in particular) hire separate people for the two job categories. GE Healthcare, for example, has had upstream product managers responsible for global product strategy and launch. The downstream product managers handled the marketing and sales support necessary to manage the profitable sales of products after launch and beyond. Sometimes the downstream product managers are responsible for marketing the products in different countries. Beckman Coulter has similar split positions, but refers to them as strategic product managers and tactical product managers.
The split between upstream and downstream is not consistent across industries, either. For some companies, particularly in highly technical fields, upstream activities end before commercialization, with downstream product managers taking over at launch. And some companies shift from upstream to downstream at the start of a new product project (at the shift from R&D to development). The “best practice” for a company depends on what works best for their specific circumstances. Long development time, heavy regulatory oversight, and/or prolonged testing prior to approvals may suggest an appropriate environment for splitting the product management function into upstream and downstream. Without question, however, the vast majority of companies I deal with expect product managers to handle both upstream and downstream functions.
Upstream product managers must think long-term. Strategic product thinking is a precursor to new-product development because it forces product managers to envision a future that does not yet exist – to lead the market and create products before customers ask for them. This requires a certain level of risk and creativity. Product managers must ask themselves: How will the customers of tomorrow be different from the customers of today? What products/services will these customers expect? What existing capabilities can we expect to use in the future and what new abilities will we need to develop? The emphasis is not on projecting the present into the future. Rather, the emphasis is on trying to understand how the future will be different from the present and the impact that will have on present planning.
“Manage the siren call of fire-fighting.”
4 Common Mistakes of Product Managers
Product managers typically have job descriptions listing duties and responsibilities, such as competitive analysis and new product development. But sometimes it is easier to understand a position by focusing on mistakes to avoid rather than simply tasks to complete. Here’s a partial list.
1. Having a view that is too product-centric
It may seem counterintuitive to say that product managers sometimes make the mistake of focusing too much on their products, but it’s true. An overemphasis on products can divert attention from the customers. Many product managers (particularly in business-to-business and service-sector firms) are hired for their technical expertise with a specific product or service – and subsequently focus on the next “killer app” even if customers want something else!
2. Responding solely to customer requests
Having just warned against becoming too product-centric, it may seem contradictory to call responding to customer requests a mistake. Yet it can be. While responding to current customer needs is important, it’s just as important to ask yourself, “how will customers of tomorrow be different from customers of today – and what does that imply for my product line?” Many companies have missed significant trends by looking inside rather than outside the firm
3. Being a fire fighter
Product managers overlook these customer trends when they are too busy putting out fires. Over time, fire fighting becomes the norm, preventing product managers from devoting any serious time to strategy. While there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach, product managers must structure their time to allow for long-term planning.
4. Viewing the position as a “specialist” position
To move beyond the specialist “fire fighter” image, product managers must work to create products and services that deliver superior customer satisfaction while simultaneously providing long-term value for the company. To accomplish this, a product manager needs a broad knowledge of virtually all aspects of a company, functioning as a generalist who can accomplish work through other people and functional departments.
“Product managers are involved throughout development, but play a critical role in concepting and commercialization.”
3 C Framework
There are several processes and templates (including many variations of Stage-gate) available evaluate a firm’s new product development approach. To better understand the product manager’s role in the process, it is useful to collapse the process into a product manager’s 3C development process: Concepting, Creating, and Commercializing. During concepting there’s a strong emphasis on data capture, with the product manager taking a lead role in gathering and evangelizing market insights. As the process moves into product creation (design and development), emphasis morphs slightly from product management to project management. Whether team leadership stays with the product manager or shifts to a separate project manager depends on company procedures, product complexity and role expectations. Either way, the product manager must stay actively involved in oversight, ensuring that the new product project effectively passes gate reviews (or occasionally making the recommendation to kill a project). If the project moves into the final C, the product manager should again take the lead during commercialization, including pre- and post- activities.
Downstream PM Skills
Product Lifecycle Management
Product managers who have downstream responsibilities are heavily involved with product lifecycle management. When dealing with existing products, product managers are expected to do one or more of the following: (1) reinforce and protect sales of “core” and secondary products, (2) renew and revitalize sales of products that should be strong but have begun to falter; (3) relaunch or resurrect selected products or concepts; and/or (4) retire failing products.
A “reinforce” product generates a good income stream, but might not justify significant marketing expenditures. It may be a secondary product that doesn’t face much competitive pressure, or it may be a core product that has strong brand equity. In either case, the product manager will look for ways to protect market share and prevent losses to the competition, preferably with minimal cost outlays
Renewal products require revitalization; they can be at any stage of the product life cycle, but are not performing at a level objectively determined as possible. These products require specific demand creation activities to gain increased usage or market penetration.
Relaunch (or resurrect) products are those that have been ignored or even discontinued, but now seem to have value in the current environment. This could be due to technology growth, change in the competitive arena, or even a sense of nostalgia. These products might generate revenues through a relaunch campaign.
Finally, products that are either clearly not competitive in the product category or at the end of their life cycle are candidates for elimination (or retirement). These products are identified by a noted decline in sales, a lack of ability to achieve goals, or the development of a superior product that redefined functionality. Products in this category can pose unique challenges when a key customer “clings” to the product despite its unprofitable status to your firm.
“Most product managers have both upstream and downstream responsibilities.”
“Product managers should know how to help customers make buying decisions.”
Don’t sell to prospects
Help customers make buying decisions
Do you like to be sold to?
That’s a question I frequently ask of product marketers. The majority say no. So I probe a bit deeper. “Have you ever been in a restaurant and asked the waiter what he or she would recommend? Or been trying on clothes and asked the associate for an opinion?”
If you answered yes, you were asking to be sold — but your perspective was, “please help me make a buying decision.” So it is with your customers. They don’t want a laundry list of features and benefits; they want guidance in decision-making. And while the benefits of your product’s features play a role in the decision, there are potentially a host of other factors as well.
There are emotional as well as rational motives for purchase decisions. Some decisions (such as for consumer goods) lean toward the emotional side while others (such as complex business products) lean toward the rational side. Both are important, however, since customers sometimes make an emotional decision that they justify using rational, logical factors. So arm them with the necessary tools to convince themselves AND others that this is the correct decision. As you do this, remember that customers may choose to buy for reasons beyond your product entirely. So let’s look at some of the factors influencing purchase decisions by asking a series of questions.
First, why are customers making this decision – what are their goals? Let’s say buyers are making a decision to purchase lab equipment. Do they want ease of use, current functionality, or future capabilities? Are they trying to position their company for efficiency or growth? Can corporate factors (such as brand, relationships and history) influence the purchase decision? The more closely the product marketer can align with the customer’s goals, the easier it will be to facilitate a buying decision in your favor. Demonstrate how your product can contribute to their profitability, efficiency or competitive advantage.
Here is an example of almost verbatim promotional material from one of my clients, modified slightly to camouflage the company and industry. “XYZ Company’s solution is a comprehensive, integrated, and strategic customer care solution consisting of products and services that provide analytical capabilities, channel integration, process and sales improvement, and subject matter expertise to the industry.”