03013 Become an Industry Subject Matter Expert

One of the conundrums for Product Managers is that in many ways, their area of expertise is product management of a software application, yet companies increasingly require them to have experience in the industry that uses the software.

There are good arguments for doing it this way, and equally strong ones for having Product Managers whose specialty is not industry-specific, but stems instead from the skills and competence required to be a Product Manager. You can argue that only someone who has worked in, say, a bank can understand what a bank employee needs from their contact management application.

On the other hand, why would you rely on someone to do product management because they have good banking industry experience, which probably translates to experience in three or four different banks, maximum, out of a total of thousands? How does that industry experience improve the likelihood that they can be an effective Product Manager, with all the tasks, skills, and perspective that entails?

It’s a mistake to rely on a person’s industry experience to guide them for years after they have transitioned to the software industry. Plus, their perspective needs to be broader and more comprehensive And those Product Managers who have not worked in the industry, whose are hired because their expertise is in software product management, need to develop a full understanding of the industry they serve.

Use the eight tips below to develop your understanding of the business environment and needs of your customer base, so that you become an industry subject matter expert (SME). Your expertise adds a critical dimension to your product management activity, especially when it comes to product positioning and strategic direction.


Maintain a Constant, Low-Grade Effort

Don’t limit your exposure to customers and their business only to special events such as focus groups and conferences. While such events provide an opportunity for intense learning, you want to create a situation where you are constantly learning a little something about the business and what it’s like, week after week, month after month.

Try to have at least one discussion every week with customers about a business topic you know you need to understand better. Take advantage of other reasons to talk to customers — beta programs, press releases, implementation projects — to spend a little time tapping their brain about their work, their industry, and how their company is different from or similar to other companies in the industry.

If you are doing product research, talk about what you have just learned from it, and get their feedback.

There is also an opportunity to talk with colleagues who are out in front of the customer, such as trainers and consultants, to listen to their stories.

Oh, and if you want this to actually happen, you need to use the next tip.

Build It Into Your Schedule

The only way that you will be able to learn the business in small pieces on a continuing basis is by deliberately and proactively building this effort into your schedule.

Each week, look at tasks that will require you or other team members to contact customers. Check with consultants, trainers, customer care reps, and developers to uncover discussions or meetings that they will be having in the coming week. Then participate in the discussion, and at the end of that, bring up some business issues you need to learn about.

You can also do this on a more formal basis by calling customers actively engaged in projects with your company — customizations, training, implementation — and scheduling a discussion about a certain topic. Ask that customer if they can ask a colleague to attend as well.

However you do it, you must schedule a regular task for the same time each week, where you identify at least one customer discussion that you can use as an opportunity to ask questions and listen to the insider view.

After you do this for awhile, you’ll find that it becomes a habit to turn discussions with customers into mini learning sessions.

Turn Product Presentations Into Discussions

Any product presentation to customers or prospects is an opportunity to begin a discussion about business issues, to run ideas by experienced people in the industry for their feedback and perspective.

Take advantage of demos and presentations to go around the table and solicit everyone’s viewpoint on specific topics. You not only get a comprehensive view but over time you begin to get an idea of how popular certain opinions are.

For example, you may find that almost 80% of the time your customers do not share information in their contact files. But about 20% of the time they need to pass contacts and leads to colleagues. That kind of information tells you what priority to assign to a requirement to share leads, and how extensive such a feature would need to be.

Attend Industry Conferences

You probably go to conferences for software and technology in your industry which are attended by your customers. But remember that is your industry. Don’t attend conferences only in your industry, but in theirs. If the business is banking, go to conferences where bankers go, which may have nothing to do with software or technology, but everything to do with critical business issues they face today.

This is a way to uncover hidden needs not currently being addressed by your software – maybe not being addressed by any of your competitors either. Such a find provides an opportunity to shift the competitive advantage in your favor.

Make Site Visits

Talking to someone over the phone, in the comfort of your office, about their industry and their job, will only get you so far. When you go to that person’s place of business and see where they work, how they work, who they work with, and what they have to do, suddenly everything comes alive. It seems real, and you’re getting much more of the insider’s perspective.

Just like you look for opportunities for telephone discussions or meetings at your office, look for visits by your colleagues to customer sites, and tag along. You can also arrange your own visits with a sampling of different types of customers you have, “type” being defined by however you segment them.

Try to make the site visit long enough that you get a good feel for what a customer’s (or prospect’s) workday is like. This will have to be longer than a two-hour meeting. It probably should be a whole day, or better yet two whole days.

It’s asking a lot to take a whole day of someone’s time like that, especially if they have to spend a lot of time talking with you. That’s why you may want to follow the next two tips for site visits.

Do Job Shadowing

Instead of having discussions about what a job is like, arrange to shadow someone for a day or two. Attend meetings, sit next to them during business calls, sit in their office while they do work. Often, the person will provide plenty of information while you’re there.

You want to make sure you make them comfortable with just letting you sit there. And you also want to make sure you give the person a break from your presence at least two or three times during the day.

Talk With All Levels and Functions

To get a complete picture, try to interact with all levels of staff and all job functions that work with your software. Don’t just talk with the manager or the decision makers.

Often, when you talk with staff at multiple levels and across departments, you get a feel for the processes and handoffs between people and job functions, and for where collaborative work breaks down. This kind of information can provide the knowledge to come up with breakthrough features that are highly popular.

This is also a way, if you are doing a site visit, to spread your time around instead of placing all the burden on one person.

Conduct Focus Groups

In conjunction with conducting focus groups for research and feedback on specific capabilities with the software, you can spend time on business discussions. These are on topics that are completely independent of the software.

This is a great way to get a feel for the range of opinions on a given issue, as well as the prevalence or popularity of each opinion.

A well facilitated business discussion among peers can be the biggest reward focus group members. While participants might appreciate the day out of the office and the chance to travel, they will love getting the perspective and advice of others with the same job in the same industry.

— Jacques Murphy, Product Management Challenges


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