03021 Product Champion: What Does That Mean?

You often see job listings for Product Managers that describe the role as “product champion.” It sure sounds interesting, but what exactly does it mean? Just what do you have to do to be the champion of a product?

Product Managers are also often described as the “owner” of the product, or the “product CEO” (that’s CEO of the product, not the company – don’t go there!). That’s a more comprehensive description of the Product Manager position. Just as one of the roles of the company CEO is to be the champion of the company, so too one of the roles of Product Manager is to be the product champion.

In an earlier topic called “The Two Types of Product Managers” I discuss how companies often split their Product Manager roles into a technical and a marketing flavor. If this is the case for your company, each type of Product Manager still takes on the role of product champion – only the specific champion duties are either more technical or more marketing oriented.

Read on to learn what it means to be the product champion.

Spokesperson, Barker, Ringmaster

The Product Manager serves as the mouthpiece or spokesperson for the product. When the media or analysts want to understand the product, the Product Manager articulates its uses and benefits.

At trade shows and conferences the Product Manager often acts as a barker, attracting people to the booth to hear all about the product.

And the Product Manager is like a ringmaster at the circus, shining the spotlight on all the different wonderful things that your company is doing, from the engineers jumping through fiery hoops to the CEO getting shot out of a cannon to try to make a big splash on the investment community.

Social Butterfly, Cheerleader, Broken Record

The product needs a spokesperson to tout it to the great big world out there, but there’s just as much talking needed inside the company.

The Product Manager gets to be a corporate social butterfly, chatting up people in all the departments and functions, all the members of the management team. Partly this is so the Product Manager can keep track of everything that’s happening with the product. But this is also partly to ensure that the proper communication occurs between people who may very well not get the message if you don’t carry it to them.

The product champion is also the cheerleader for the product. Given everybody’s tendency to gossip and feed the rumor mill with negative information and misinformation, it becomes critical for the product to have a cheerleader who calls out the good things about the product, loud and clear for everyone to hear.

And yes, this usually bears a lot of repeating. Sometimes it feels like being a broken record. The Broken Record technique is a specific technique of assertiveness training. It takes lots of repetition to wear away at the resistance to change, like drops of water wearing away at a rock.

Even when your company and your product is moving forward in the marketplace, there is the all too human tendency for dissension in the ranks, and a Product Manager’s cheerleading helps pull people together.

Oracle, Spy, Scout

Because new software functionality comes about so quickly these days, this year’s market leader can be next year’s laggard. The product champion needs to be looking at what’s happening with competitors and partners and be able to foresee what’s coming down the pike before it has rounded the bend.

The Product Manager, as product champion, needs to be doing a little discreet spying, finding out about what the competition is planning.

So, too, the product champion acts like a scout, checking out the terrain and measuring the strength, tactics, and intentions of the competition, so that the company is ready to do well in the next battle.

Prizefighter, Gladiator, Reinforcements

A product champion gets lots of practice sparring with prospects and audiences when presenting the benefits and uniqueness of the software. They get called in for difficult prospects and demos like the prizefighter that the sales reps can count on in front of a tough crowd.

And then there’s the really tough crowd. Maybe it’s angry investors, or a prospect that has already decided to choose a competitor, where the sales rep is hoping against hope to win them over. That’s when the product champion gets to be a gladiator, thrown in front of an audience that doesn’t want to be convinced, to give the performance of a lifetime.

But more generally the Product Manager can be called in like the reinforcements for sales and marketing teammates in need of help telling a story, explaining a benefit, or giving a speech.

Inspector, Babysitter, Guardian, Nurse

“Product champion” sounds pretty impressive. But every product needs someone to hover over it and fret, making sure that development is on track. The product champion acts as an inspector for new features, sometimes babysitting the more vulnerable development projects.

There’s often a lot of controversy or disagreement about which features take the most priority and need the most attention, so a product champion often winds up as the guardian of immature functionality, making sure it’s protected until it’s strong enough to stand on its own.

Then there are the sickly features. The ones that keep getting bugs. The Product Manager takes their vital signs frequently and runs for the doctor if there’s anything seriously wrong.

Matchmaker, Busybody

Many software products owe their success as much to the partnerships and alliances that are formed as to their own individual capabilities. This is another area where a product champion gets involved, helping play matchmaker to introduce other products to the management team, helping both sides see just what a good match it could be.

The product champion winds up sticking their nose in everybody’s business in order to spot the best new partners and help the process along. Because the Product Manager position involves interacting with all members of the management team, all functions and departments, the conditions are in place to be the perfect busybody – as long as it helps more than it hurts.

And Just Why Is This?

This all makes the product champion role sound exciting and a little exotic. Just why is it that a Product Manager ends up with the product champion role? It’s because there’s no one else to do it. Everyone else is too busy with a more constrained, more defined job scope.

You can’t ask the head of Engineering to go hunting around the marketplace for partners when they have to ensure that coding is on schedule, although they can and do provide vital assistance evaluating partners when called upon.

The CEO – who gets involved in everything, doesn’t have the time to scout out the competition, babysit problem development projects, and spar with testy prospects in demos. The CEO has a company to champion.

The product champion role is probably a Product Manager’s most difficult job responsibility to define, yet the most vital to the success of your product.

— Jacques Murphy, Product Management Challenges