06010 Make Your Product Succeed: What Will It Take?

As a Product Manager, your scope of responsibilities calls upon you to get involved across the board in all aspects of the product. There's plenty of work to be done for product requirements, Marketing, Sales, Development, and Professional Services.

In order to be effective as a Product Manager, you need to identify those areas in your organization where there are weaknesses or gaps, and bring your talents and efforts to bear to fill in those gaps. In fact, that idea of "filling in the gaps" might be one of the best ways to define a Product Manager and to provide the answer to the question you get from nearly everyone you meet: "What exactly does a Product Manager do?"

But pursuing a strategy of filling in the gaps can be a recipe for working harder, not smarter, if there are too many gaps to fill. And usually there is no shortage of these. As with all endeavors where there's too little of you to go around, you need to prioritize your efforts and choose the top priorities.

For those of us who do not have the good fortune or luxury of getting to prioritize based on what we like to do most, it becomes necessary to prioritize based on where we can be most effective in making our product more successful. This takes some thoughtful analysis of your product's – and your organization's – situation to determine what factors are most important to its success right now. Then focus your efforts on those factors.

Because there was always something I could contribute to virtually every aspect of the product, I struggled for years to try to determine what I should contribute. It's hard to see through the details and the noise to figure out what will make the biggest difference, what will give you the biggest boost. It's easy to see why everything could be done, but your challenge is to determine what should be done, and done now before you bother with the finer points.

Read on below for some examples of different products at different organizations and in different phases of their life cycle to understand how you can apply careful analysis to figure out what it will take to make your product succeed.


Scouting Out the Terrain

Wherever you find yourself, as Product Manager it's up to you to work with the management team to determine what is the most effective area to focus on to make your product succeed. It takes a little time and a lot of focused attention to assess the product and the company. As Product Manager, it's something you are uniquely positioned to do, because you have the opportunity to see both the big picture as presented by the management team and to get involved in the details like other managers may not be able to do if they are focused on staffing and strategy.

This effort is a little like scouting out the terrain. It requires a lot of walking and looking, including using binoculars and telescopes to get a good closeup view. And things become much more obvious once you're deep into the terrain.

Startups Just Want to Have Funds

Let's start with an example of a startup. When you are a Product Manager at a startup, you are in a situation where the scope of what you could do is largest of all. But what should you do? The short answer to that question is that you should do what directly supports the startup's exit strategy.

If the exit strategy is to get acquired by an established company, your focus is helping to sell your product and venture to potential buyers. It's as simple as that, and while of course you need to make sure that your product has the heft needed to appeal to a buyer, your most important contribution may be imparting the product vision and building admiration and excitement for it through discussions and demos that explain how your product can complement or supplement your prospective buyer's existing product line.

A Product Which Doesn't Sell Won't Survive

Many technology startups begin with great products devised by engineers who don't know how to sell them. You could say the same for products coming out of a large, insulated R&D organization at an industry giant.

The software product is well designed and meets a need in the market. The Development team has worked hard with Marketing to put together compelling collateral. And then everyone waits around for the world to beat a path to its door.

But there's no magic formula for making the product fly off the shelves. What it's going to take is a sales force, one that is well informed, articulate about the product, and convincing. As Product Manager, the single most important thing you can do is to support the sales force and get the reps up to speed.

This effort starts with thorough education and confidence boosting. It includes developing sales tools that help your reps recognize and respond intelligently and sensitively to the pains and needs expressed by your prospects. With a small enough sales force, it means being the sales support person on the calls, at least until you can ramp up a staff of sales engineers.

All the other things you could do as Product Manager won't amount to much if the product isn't selling. That's why the focus in this case is sales education and support. Sales success at the end of the current year will lead to a healthy budget for further development and marketing next year.

The Hardest Sell: Your Own Sales Force

Or take the example of a new product at an established company with a sales force that already has a portfolio of products to sell. Your biggest challenge will be to sell to your sales force. As Product Manager, you need to get their attention, capture their imagination, then build mindshare, so that sales reps are on the lookout for prospects for your product.

Of course, this assumes a sales support organization that is ready to deliver support whenever it's needed. But the real challenge in this case is selling your sales force on the appeal of your product, and on how it can help the reps meet their quota.

Think selling to prospects is hard? Try selling to sales reps! Being masters of spin, they'll see through any phony spin on your part really fast. Yet selling to the sales force is the single best way to have an effect on your product's success in this case.

We Need to Build This Mousetrap Better!

In a situation where your product has strong competitors who are improving their products, it's possible for your product to fall behind in terms of capabilities. Your message and marketing may be good enough, but when it comes down to the sale, you lose too many deals to the competition.

As the Product Manager in such a situation, you will be faced with a difficult choice. Should you go for a quick fix and tweak the messaging so that it highlights your unique strengths (and let's hope you still have some!) and bolster the competitive arguments for the sales reps? Or, do you bite the bullet and focus on defining and funneling requirements for new capabilities to Development?

While you may be forced to do the quick fix in order to tread water, the single most important area where you can make a difference is feeding good product requirements to Development. Once Development begins producing new capabilities, you start closing the gap with your competition.

A Product Nobody Knows About

Some products are great quality products that solve a significant customer problem. They work fine. There's nothing wrong with the product. But if your marketing efforts are ineffective, nobody has ever heard about the product when your sales reps call, and the only purchases come from labor-intensive efforts by Sales.

In such a case, the single most important thing you can do is work on crafting a message and getting that message out to the market. It requires that you as the Product Manager help produce collateral, conduct PR campaigns, and grab the attention of analysts by providing solid, credible content.

An Idea Ahead of Its Product

Led by a strong Marketing talent, your company has developed a great vision for the product, one that fits with trends and inspires prospects. But the product lacks the detailed features to back up the Marketing claims, and you wind up with underwhelmed customers, unenthusiastic word-of-mouth reputation, and stalled growth.

In such a situation, the Product Manager needs to focus on working with customers, prospects, and industry experts to define the next level of detail to flesh out the grand ideas. The first half is defining the requirements. The second half of the effort is to focus on Development to make sure that it executes properly, and begins to turn out improvements regularly and on time. The Product Manager works to help plan the work, track progress, and resolve delays.

A Product Everyone Is Happy With

Take the example of an established product that has sold well in the past and continues to have solid sales. Your customers like the product. It does what they want it to. When you go to your customer base for suggestions, you get requests for incremental improvements that make it a little more convenient or give vocal users specialized functionality just for them.

This is not necessarily a problem if your market is not experiencing competitive pressures or changes driven from within and without. But this is rarely the case. As the Product Manager, the single most effective thing you can do is to work with industry experts and visionary customers to define the next vision that meets the trends head-on, positioning your product to flourish next year and the year after next.

What's Your Top Priority?

It's not easy to clearly understand your product and your company in order to pinpoint what is most important for its success. But by thinking hard and focusing on the biggest priorities, a Product Manager, when faced with requests for all kinds of assistance, can be effective in advancing the cause of the product by focusing on what brings the biggest return.

— Jacques Murphy, Product Management Challenges



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