An Advice Column On Product Management

Dear Product Manager is a periodic advice column covering the struggles and challenges of software product management. It is written by Jacques Murphy, the author of this website, the Product Management Challenges newsletter. While the extensive newsletter content of over 118 articles is available to paying subscribers, the Dear Product Manager advice column is free and available to all.

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This Column’s Theme: Product Training

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The questions I have selected for this week center around product training. Are product managers responsible? Where can product management add value? Should product management provide training on new releases? How about training to sales and marketing folks?

So let's see what our readers have on their minds.

Dear Product Manager,

I work in a large company, but am part of a small business unit that makes a software product. I am in charge of product management and marketing, and we are now discussing how to organize product training. There has been some discussion of having it be my responsibility, and I'm not sure if this makes sense, though it's true that I am thoroughly versed in the software through my product management duties. I am leery of taking on too much, since there is already so much on my plate. How typical is it for customer training to fall under product management?

— All Eyes Trained On Me

Dear Eyes Trained On Me,

I can confidently say that it is not typical to have customer training fall under product management, though I can also say that in a small but growing organization, product management often takes on disparate duties that are later spun off as you scale up. Your situation sounds almost like it's a little startup in the heart of a bigger company, where people are wearing many hats, and those hats are going to jump around as the organization grows.

I have most often seen Training grouped with Customer Support and with Consulting. Of course, I've been in a startup where all three of those functions reported to Product Marketing and Management, which put product managers in close touch with trainers, who brought back key suggestions for product requirements from customer training sessions. It worked well.

Hearing that you are part of a larger company, one option to explore is whether there is an existing training function for another, larger business unit whose trainers could take on your product training.

Regardless of whether you can rely on another business unit to deliver training, I would suggest that you expect to play a pivotal role in helping develop training content. With your product management activities, you have not only a thorough knowledge of the goals and reasoning behind the product capabilities, but also an intimate acquaintance with how features are implemented in the software. And as some of the questions below point out, some aspects of product training, if not customer training, do clearly belong to product management.

— Signed, Product Manager

Dear Product Manager,

As a product manager for accounting software, I am expected to assist with product training. We have a training department that delivers courses to our customers. The trainers are talented individuals, many of whom have an accounting background. Training is mostly focused on everyday step-by-step use of the software, however I feel we need to be doing something more. What kind of training have you seen provided by other product managers?

— Trainer in Training

Dear Trainer in Training,

Your company already has its trainers taking care of the everyday, step-by-step training. What you need to do is add some of the strategic aspects to the information that gets delivered to the customer base, and your product management role means that you're well versed in the strategic aspects of the product. This is a perfect illustration of how product management can add value to training, by focusing on strategic uses of the product, overall business issues that your customers deal with, as well as providing an idea of the product direction.

Here are a few ideas:

  • Strategic Topics — develop some presentations and training about key strategic uses of the software. Rather than covering the everyday, you want to talk about management issues, issues such as how to use the product to make more money, cut costs, or be more efficient. You could just as easily think of these as Management Topics. This training might be organized in a number of different ways. It could be organized around the software, where you go into more theory and background about the purpose of certain features. Or it could be organized in terms of business issues, such as How to Acquire More Customers, where you touch upon all the features that could support such an effort.
  • Big Picture Intro — I provided something like this at a past company, where I gave a presentation on the first day of every sit-down user training class. This presentation really wasn't about the software at all, but addressed a strategic issue we had with customer adoption. Specifically, I worked to set expectations about the organizational issues that new customers would face as they adopted our software. It primed our new customers for a more successful product adoption.
  • New Features — this is really the heart of the kind of product knowledge that product management is most qualified to provide, although training may not be the right term for it. This can be organized as slide presentations and webcasts, and goes both to internal and external audiences. I would expect to provide more hands-on, screen-and-field level data for the internal audiences, but in both cases you want to provide more than just practical explanations, but solid insight into the purposes behind the new features. Presentations about new releases are also an opportunity to cover the nitty-gritty of release schedules and guidelines and procedures for upgrades.
  • Product Directions — this is also at the core of what product management does, so it would most likely fall to you to deliver it, or to develop the content for executive management to deliver. It's good to deliver this on a regular basis to internal audiences so that the entire organization is up to speed on upcoming product capabilities. This can be easily combined with new features training.
  • Specialized Training — this would be training for sales reps, or customer support, or consulting. You may decide to take a leading role here or delegate this to a qualified and influential member of the department being trained, with you helping to develop the content and provide support during the training.

Whether you deliver this training yourself or delegate it to your trainers or other individuals is up to you, but your product knowledge is key to developing good content here. Many of the strategic issues could be incorporated into the existing class content, with training for the trainers and ongoing support from you (attending initial classes, providing feedback, being on call during training classes to answer the trainers' questions, etc.). Or this could take the form of supplemental pre-recorded and live webcasts, with the live ones providing plenty of opportunity for Q&A. Combined together, these various training and presentation sessions will give your customers the full complement of what they need to know in order to take full advantage of your product.

— Signed, Product Manager

Dear Product Manager,

I am a Director of Product Management, and our department will be responsible for all new release training. I'm not all that sure where this training stops and our regular customer training begins. Do we deliver this training to customers as well? What would you include in such training?

— Release Me

Dear Release Me,

Since it sounds like you already have customer training at your company, I would say the focus of product management should be to train the various internal departments so that they are ready to support the new product, whether it be customer support, consulting, training, or sales. Your training role is to be the interpreter between development and the customer-facing functions at your company. Here's a quick rundown of a process you might follow:

  • Knowledge Transfer Sessions — these are internal sessions, when all or almost all of the new capabilities have been developed but before the market launch, where all departments that will need to work with and support the new release have a chance to get thorough training about new functionality delivered by Development. Each department needs plenty of opportunity to get its questions answered and concerns addressed. You can save valuable developer time by combining training for multiple departments, but you may also want to organize different slots on the schedule for individual departments to ask questions and review certain features in detail. If your organization is small enough, all members of each department can attend these sessions, but otherwise only designated members attend as the subject matter experts (SMEs) for the new release.
  • Departmental Training — after every department has benefitted from the Knowledge Transfer Sessions, departmental SMEs develop training and supporting materials for all members of their department. Product management supports this by answering questions, getting clarification from developers, and potentially organizing further Q&A sessions with developers.
  • Updated Customer Training — your training department is the one to develop and deliver training to customers. This will be both What's New training sessions as well as the full training, updated to include the latest features, for future customers. While that takes care of formal classes, you probably also want to provide a higher-level webinar or presentation to customers about the new release, its new features, and release and upgrade plans, as discussed under the previous question.

As to what to include in the training, the Knowledge Transfer Sessions and Departmental Training will need to be as detailed as possible, with thorough demonstrations of screens and fields. If resources permit, give participants hands-on access to the software so that they can follow along with the presenter. You could accommodate this last suggestion by having Training deliver pilot sessions internally to solidify their mastery of the new content.

So to recap, your role is best served by facilitating the transfer of knowledge from development to the customer-facing departments at your company, with the addition of directly providing a more strategic level presentation to the customers themselves.

— Signed, Product Manager

Dear Product Manager,

I will be responsible for providing training to our sales force and marketing folks at our quarterly sales meetings. I have sat through, as well as delivered, product training to sales reps in the past that has been less than satisfactory. It often generated a lot of complaints from sales, and didn't seem to help them sell the product any better. What do you suggest so that we do a better job training our sales reps in our product?

— Want to Make the Sale

Dear Want to Make the Sale,

I'm not surprised that you have your doubts about how to make the training of your sales force as effective as it can be. The training you need to provide to sales has to be very different from product training that you might give to almost any other department. And here's where I'll defer to another expert, Peter E. Cohan, author of the book Great Demo! I followed his advice for structuring sales training as a series of case studies, stories really, that explain who bought the product (including the job titles of the buyers), what their issue was, and the results they got from the product. You can find this information in an article entitled Selling to Your Sales Force or click here to go directly to this great article.

What I can tell you is that by following this advice closely, it made all the difference in the effectiveness of the sales training I delivered to a sales force of over 350 reps, particularly the new hires.

— Signed, Product Manager

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