Great Product Management starts with…

sound_small.jpgOne of the more common questions I hear from product management teams is based on figuring out why company A is successful and company B is not. Perhaps it’s that company A somehow does a better job of listening to their customers, is the question. Sounds intuitive. Perhaps even a little business-schoolish to imply success could be so tied up on one axis. While interesting and valuable, I think it’s a little theoretical. Given my 10+ years now doing this product definition and go-to-market work, I want to turn this concept on its head.
I propose to change the framework from ‘listening to customers’, to when and what to listen for.
There are 3 main veins of when to listen, and what to listen for.
Starting with the obvious party, the Customer:

You must know what’s important from the perspective of those buying and using the product. Listen to customers and salespeople. Take lots of notes, but then, sit back from all the specific input and ask yourself: What are customer pain points? What are customers doing now to solve the problem? What’s common to all these customers? What’s unique about them? What can you do creatively to solve the problems? Simplistically, can you answer the questions: So what? Who cares? Why? Remember that people can go on and on about things they would like you to do, yet will only pay for a few things. A set of question that’s worked well in defining new markets are these:

– What keeps the customer (ideally the decision-maker) awake at night?
– How could a product (any product) or service solve that problem. What must it do?
– Why could you / your company provide the best solution.

And the somewhat non-obvious choice: Execs:

When members of your executive management team talk with you about the product, it’s important to listen. Not because they’re your boss, and you want to be in alignment with their wishes. Although that is a good reason. But because you want to understand what are the key market influences shaping where the company is going.

– What do they consider to be important to achieve?
– Is it share, is it growth, is it acquiring a particular customer segment?

Undoubtedly, product managers who are successful are listening for these priorities can use it to guide the product strategy. Top management could be interested in, say, creating beachheads in new markets, and therefore defining for broad markets at first, or for revenue optimization may not be the right strategies. Rather, it might be incredibly important to capture share early and create adoption by the early enthusiasts of a product category.

And finally, the competition needs to be ‘heard’

Creating a unique offer is about figuring out is untapped. To know that, you need to know and understand what the competitors are doing and where they could be going. To understand that, you need to learn how do our competitors position themselves? Is there any unclaimed space we can claim? Or a fulcrum where we can apply our unique leverage? An assessment of the competition followed with an analysis of their advertisements, websites and other marketing materials can be really valuable. I always start with websites, blog sites, community forums (like e-pinions) and checking out what people are saying. The more the product is already ‘out there’ the easier it is. This analysis needs to result in you knowing the fundamental positioning for each competitor. Sometimes, it helps to plot these on a quadrant, or perception map. You could then see new product opportunities not claimed by others–the territories still open for you to claim.

The key is to figure out what to listen to/ and what to listen for. Don’t be a slave to customer wish-lists. Serve the stuff up that customers really need. That can be creative and outside the current framework — offering something they didn’t even know they wanted. And then they’ll pay you for it. And the world will be a better place.

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