04021 Guerilla Training: Learning the Product

It’s an unfortunate characteristic of our economy today that inadequate time is spent on training employees on a product. Usually, companies look to Product Managers to be the gurus on the product, understanding the ins and outs of all the features. So how do you get to the point where you know the product inside and out, especially when you are assigned a new product or change companies?

The hard fact is that if you want to really learn the product, you’re going to have to figure out how to do most of the learning yourself. Read on for some tips on how to go about learning the product in all its depth.


Classroom Training Is Great, But …

It’s great, but you may or may not have the opportunity to benefit from classroom training. If you don’t happen to arrive at the company at a time when they have planned their once-a-year or even one-time product training session, you’re out of luck. If the training takes place on site at customers, you may not be able to get permission to travel to Kansas to attend.

So here are eight suggestions that you can follow to supplement your formal training with training that will let you, as the Product Manager, become the unquestioned expert on the product’s ins and outs.

Let the Trainers Practice On You

Try to set up short sessions (two to four hours at a time) with the product trainers where they can practice specific sections or units of training on you. Generally, trainers have a hard time getting realistic practice before a customer training session. Offer to be their experimental training participant in exchange for receiving training in the product.

This is different from asking a trainer to sit down with you for an hour or two to explain the product. That’s a request to deliver training tailored to you. Being a practice attendee is an offer that helps the trainers be better prepared to do their job when they’re on the spot in front of the customer, and hopefully will motivate them to provide you more complete product training.

Talk to the Consultants

Take the time to have plenty of discussions with implementation consultants. When they come back from an assignment, ask about which features generated the most discussion, and which areas a customer was focused on.

This provides an opportunity to hear many customer stories. These stories usually stray from the standard training, showing the wide range of uses that the customer base (and market of prospects) can have for the product.

Remember that you want to keep these discussions positive. It’s important not to let these discussions devolve into gripe sessions. They’re learning experiences, and they’re an opportunity to appreciate the consultant’s experience in the field.

Listen Closely to Arguments

One of the best times to discover out-of-the-way details on how the product works is during debates and arguments among experienced users, trainers, consultants, and developers. These discussions will help bring to the surface poorly understood capabilities, or alternate ways to perform the same function.

As a Product Manager, this is the time to get your notebook out. Beyond its immediate value as product training, an argument about a feature is an opportunity to expose and define a requirement for fixing or improving how the product works today.

Catch People Off the Record

Formal training can provide lots of useful information. However, when you get to know a product in detail, it is rarely as clean and consistent as it may appear during training.

Many of the trainers, consultants, and support reps know about these inconsistencies. However, they may be unwilling to speak up in a group of people. It can be useful to catch coworkers after a meeting or during a break in product presentations, or alone in their cubicle, to discuss certain tricky features.

It’s important not to let these discussions turn into whining (though there’s no harm in letting someone vent a little), but try to direct them towards a clarification of capabilities, limitations, positive and negative impact, and options.

Ask Lots of (Good) Questions

Coworkers with plenty to do are not going to spontaneously take the time to explain things to you, because they’re busy with higher priorities. However, if you show a genuine interest and ask questions that demonstrate your motivation to learn the product, most coworkers will be happy to help.

They’ll open up even more if you listen carefully and show that you have learned something from them. People are naturally hesitant to expend energy until they see that it produces results.

Talk to Customers

Talk to your coworkers to determine who the top users of your product are in the customer base. Call up these power users and interview them for tips or suggestions. Encourage their stories of how they pushed the product envelope to make it do something nobody ever told them it could do.

Power users are the most likely to have explored detailed capabilities in depth, and used specific features in a number of different ways in pursuit of their projects.

Spend Lots of Screen Time

Seeing the software in action and hearing about it will only get you so far. The really detailed knowledge comes when you go screen by screen and field by field, step by step. Only uninterrupted hours working with the software will get you to the depth of understanding that you need as a Product Manager.

Build Demo Scenarios

Creating demo scenarios is one of the best ways to structure your screen time to yield the maximum results. When you take a typical business issue in the market and work through how to solve that with the software, you put the product through its paces and discover its limitations and little known benefits.

If you’re lucky, your sales support teammates have some scripted demos you can use to move through the software. If not, creating these scripts for them makes for an invaluable addition to internal product training.

— Jacques Murphy, Product Management Challenges


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