Of all the activities product managers are engaged with, understanding customer needs and translating those into product requirements is probably the most strategic one.  Developing new products or enhancing existing ones, is a time consuming and resource intensive process. There are few things more devastating to a business than releasing a new product only to find out it fails to meet customer expectations. Furthermore, in today’s highly competitive markets, it is not enough “just” to meet customer needs – your product must also shine against competing products who aim to fulfill similar customer needs.

So how does a product manager go about gathering market requirements? Should he read market research? Follow the trade press? Talk to customers? Listen to what sales people have to say? Study competitors’ products? Evaluate suggestions and ideas coming from various departments within the company? YES he should. These are some of the wide ranging sources a product manager can tap into to gather product requirements.

But first let me emphasize what I believe should be the key focus for gathering requirements. I want to paraphrase a statement I attribute to the former CEO of Cadence Design Systems – Joe Costello. Those of us who worked under Mr. Costello may remember his saying to product managers eager to come up with new product ideas: “Find a Customer Problem and Solve It!”

This may sound somewhat simplistic, but I can’t even begin to describe the number of times I have seen product managers, and even companies get fixated on their own ideas and in the process forget it is all about the customers. It is all about addressing customers’ needs; solving customer problems; offering customers a better way to accomplish what they want to accomplish.

If you are a product manager tasked with gathering requirements for the next release, or the next product, then make sure you get as close as possible to “the customer” and understand their needs. Find a customer problem and solve it.

There are many sources with ideas on what to do next with your product. The engineering team usually comes up with clever, technology driven suggestions. Sales people interact with customers and competitors and love to tell marketing what should be done. Customer service receives numerous customer calls with complaints and requests. Other companies you work and cooperate with have ideas on where your product should be heading. Market analysts publish reports and offer their insight on where the industry is heading. These are all good sources, but remember to get in touch with your customers directly. Don’t get lost in translation.

So how do you get in touch with customers and find what they need? Well, if your company already has customers, the task is much easier. You tap into the customer database, get in touch with sales people who can make introductions and arrange to have direct conversation with customers. You can even run surveys with your existing customers and ask them to specify or prioritize their needs. Go on sales calls with existing or potential customers. Build trust relationship with key customers, so that you can discuss your ideas for new products, or how to evolve existing products, and hear what customers have to say.

Most importantly – get out there to the field. Go on road trips, sales visits, phone calls, tradeshows, and seminars – whatever gets you in front of customers and allows you to have a dialog. Make it a priority to have regular customer interactions, even if it burdens your already busy schedule and overflowing task list. Having direct customer contact is what keeps you (and the company) honest when it comes to developing and evolving products. Most product trouble begins when that contact is lost.

But what if your company or product doesn’t have customers yet? How do you gain that invaluable customer insight? This situation is especially common in the case of startups. My experience and advice is to wear your salesman hat and go out and meet potential customers. And if you don’t have such a hat, than “grow one” – go out there with sales people, engage and learn.

Too many startups, and far too many established companies, keep their new products “under wraps” till the designated launch date. By then it is far too late to gather customer feedback, or change anything material in the product. You may be one of the lucky ones that hit the mark, and your product happened to match what customers need. Unfortunately, this is the less likely scenario… And the risk associated with missing the mark is far too great. I believe that you should discuss product ideas, under great discretion, and with hand-picked customers as early as possible. There are many customers who love to participate in driving future product direction and know how to keep a secret. Find them.

But what if the customer doesn’t really “know what they need”? What if you are working on a revolutionary product, a breakthrough technology that customers simply cannot relate to, yet? How do you get input from customers under these circumstances? In marketing lingo this is referred to as the “unarticulated needs”, unlike what I discussed earlier which deals with “articulated needs”.

People love to talk about products that “created demand” once they were introduced. Products that met needs that customers weren’t even aware existed. I think that you have to be careful before talking about “creating needs”. My belief is that customers, individuals or businesses, usually buy products that satisfy their needs. Now the product may satisfy a need in a whole new way and thus create a category. But it stills satisfy a need.

Take for example smartphones: several years ago hardly any users would have described the set of features and functions smartphones offer today. Yet the need to stay connected, gain access to information, take pictures, etc. existed. The desire to carry as few devices as possible when leaving the house was always there. The ability to connect those dots and offer a product that addresses these “unarticulated needs” is what made smartphones such a huge success.

To me it all boils down to the very same advice I got from Joe Costello years ago: “Find a customer problem and solve it!

Handling the various aspects of product management requires a broad set of skills. For example, when negotiating product requirements with engineers, product managers must understand the feasibility and implementation costs of various features. On the other hand, when working with sales, product managers need to be conversant with business lingo and understand sales processes. The “ideal” product manager in a hi-tech company must possess the following skills:

  • Technical skills: have basic understanding of the technology and tools (e.g. software, hardware) used for developing and manufacturing the product. This becomes valuable when assessing what can be accomplished within a given time frame and a set of resources.
  • Negotiation skills: product managers do not directly control the resources required for their product success. They need to negotiate and build alignment with other company managers and sometimes with partners.
  • Communication skills: verbal and written communication skills are essential for any product manager. They become invaluable while communicating with internal teams, customers or partners.  
  • Presentation skills:  product managers are asked to present on a regular basis: updates to upper management, training and motivating sales teams, briefing customer executives or briefing news editors – all require high-impact presentations.
  • Financial skills: understanding cost structures, calculating margins and profitability, building return of investment models are but some of the financial tools a product manager needs to use.
  • Sales skills: while product managers may not be directly responsible for selling, their involvement in key customer deals requires they understand the sales process and master some of the related skills.

I am sure there are a few other skills I left out…

But raw skills aren’t enough. A product manager must rely on some prior experience to be able to do their job. Very few people start their career directly in hi-tech product management. Many of the product managers I personally came across started their career in a technical position. They moved into product management after working for a while as development engineers, test engineers, support engineers or field/system engineers. Interestingly enough, almost every engineer who moves into product management expresses a similar desire: to be able to drive the product direction. But clearly being an engineer is not the only path into product management. There are many other skills and experiences that a person can leverage into becoming a product manager.

The diversity of skills and tasks associated with product management makes it difficult to find people that can handle the full spectrum of activities. This leads many companies into dividing the product management responsibilities into different roles. Of course having multiple people handle different aspects of product management – for the same product – does occasionally create overlap, conflicts or gaps. It is the organization management responsibility to ensure that those do not hinder product success.

There are many different ways to define “roles” that fit under the umbrella of product management. The most popular division lines I came across were: ‘inbound vs. outbound’, and ‘technical vs. business’. The titles may vary from one company to the other, but the roles are fairly similar:

 

Inbound

Outbound

Technical

Technical Marketing

Systems Engineer

Business

Product Manager

[Product] Marketing Manager

Inbound roles tend to focus on the interactions within the company: working with engineering, manufacturing, etc. Outbound roles focus primarily on interactions outside the company: with the media, analysts, customers, channel partners, etc. There must be close collaboration between the inbound and outbound teams: the former has intimate product knowledge, while the latter knows how to broadcast the message to the outside audience.

Technical roles tend to focus on the “how” – the inner workings of the product, while business roles focus on the “what” – the benefits and utility customer gain from using the product/service. Here again collaboration is the key to success. For example, on the inbound side, the ‘business’ person prioritizes high level requirements based on market needs,  while the ‘technical’ person works with engineering through the fine details involved in implementing those.  On the outbound side, the ‘business’ person may craft the benefit statements for the product, while the ‘technical’ person builds splashy demonstrations to illustrate them.

Whether you are on the inbound, outbound, technical or business side of things, the common objective you should strive for is the product’s success. As long as each member of the “product management” team understands the strategy and how their activities fit into it, the product will succeed. The challenge with distributed roles is to maintain open communication and close collaboration between team members – especially when they report into different organizations within the company. 

Developing, manufacturing, promoting, selling and supporting a product involve multiple departments within a company. A typical division of responsibilities may look as follows: The engineering department designs and develops the product – be it a hardware device, a piece of software, or a service. Manufacturing is responsible for building products in quantities to meet demand. The marketing department promotes the product using vehicles such as public relations, advertising, tradeshows, etc. The sales department is responsible for selling the product to potential customers. And finally the technical support department resolves any problems customers encounter while using the product.

With multiple departments involved in each product life cycle, coordination and alignment become critical to product success. Orchestrating the activities of all the departments involved is the primary responsibility of a product manager. In many respects, the product manager is the ‘Chief Executive Officer’ (CEO) of the product.

The challenge that every product manager faces, is that unlike a CEO, the various departments involved in the product lifecycle do not report to him. A product manager is rarely in a position to “order” a manufacturing manager, or an engineering manager to do the right thing for the product. The secret to a product manager success is the ability to convince the various departments to march in the same direction and effectively collaborate to ensure product success.

The product manager primary job, and a key to his /her success, is to build a leadership position; a status that will grant them authority over the various departments. The process of building product leadership requires the use of political skills – in a positive sense. It certainly helps if upper management provides the right backing for the product management team. But at the end of the day, it is the product manager who must handle the daily challenge of maintaining his/her product leadership status.

Assuming job #1 has been accomplished and the product manager has leadership/influence over the other departments, his responsibilities should include the following:

  • Product requirements: identify the key customer requirements engineering should implement in a new product, or subsequent releases of an existing product.
  • Feature prioritization: reach agreement with engineering on the priority and implementation order of features, and the actual content of a product release.
  • Release planning: plan a schedule of future releases that introduce new features and necessary fixes.
  • Pricing: of the various product offerings, options and related services.
  • Messaging: define the key messages and the product positioning. Work with the marketing department to deliver those to customers and partners.
  • Competitive positioning: analyze competing products/services in the market and define key advantages to be highlighted during the sales process.
  • Sales enablement: create educational materials and train the sales force on how to best position and sell the product/service.
  • Deal support: provide any required assistance to sales people; personally engage to help win strategic deals.
  • Crisis intervention: become involved with, and help resolve major breakdowns that occur at strategic customer deployments.

Product management is one of the most complex and challenging positions within the organization. As the saying goes – “Success has many fathers, while failure is an orphan”. When a product succeeds in the market place, engineering takes credit for building a great product, and sales will pride themselves on their ability to drum-up customers. But when a product fails, the product manager may find himself carrying the blame: feature requirements weren’t clear, or incorrectly prioritized; messaging was murky; sales were never properly trained; etc. So why should anyone wish to hold such a position?

If you love to drive a team, build consensus and watch it succeed in creating something new. If you like to deal with multiple disciplines, and interact with all parts of the organization. If you love engaging with customers and keeping your fingers on the industry pulse. If you want to exercise your analytical skills, communication skills, and people skills – then you will find the role of a product manager ideal for you. And if you dream of becoming a CEO of a company, there is no better training than a product manager job.

I never thought I would become a product manager (PM). As a matter of fact I never thought I would work in marketing. I actually didn’t know what marketing was, until my mid 20’s.

When I was about 13yrs old, I had a session with my elementary school counselor. She looked at my grades and told me that I could become either an engineer or a doctor. I didn’t like doctors. So I decided that I should pursue a technology route. I went to a vocational high school studying ‘electronics’ and proceeded to college to get a bachelor degree in computer engineering. With a BSEE in my hands, I embarked on an engineering career. It lasted for about 10yrs. I got to design communication systems, computer systems and even tried my hand at managing a team.

Most my colleagues went on to graduate school. Some got a masters degree in engineering (MSEE), others pursued a master in business administration (MBA). I couldn’t quite make up my mind which one to choose, so I signed up for both an MSEE and an MBA programs concurrently.

The MBA program really opened my eyes to another world. The world of business. I realized there are many fields I knew nothing about, and picked finance and marketing as my majors. I became reasonably proficient in finance, but fell in love with marketing. It became clearer as I progressed in my MBA studies that marketing was my destiny.

I was working as a computer engineer while attending school. I don’t know how I managed to juggle a full time job, two masters programs and start a family – all at the same time. Somehow it all worked out…

Towards the end of my MBA program I started looking for another job – a marketing job. I realized that a transition from an engineering role to a marketing role is a major career shift. So I decided to take a ‘baby step’ and move into a “technical marketing” role.

My job was to work closely with product marketing managers, and translate their marketing requirements into detailed functional specifications. I then worked closely with the software engineering team  to ensure that the functional specifications I wrote indeed matched the software products they developed. Kind of a “technical go-between” engineering and marketing.

Over time, I was requested to help train the field organization on the products we developed. I found myself traveling all over the world training technical field engineers, and meeting with customers who either considered, or were already using our products. It was a big, fascinating new world for me.

After my first step into technical marketing, I proceeded to fill roles in product marketing, corporate marketing, business development and sales. For the next 20+ years I worked for small companies, medium companies and very large companies. I worked in start-ups – some were very successful and some were not. I worked on hardware products, software products and even service products. I worked for Israeli companies, for American companies, for bi-cultural companies and for international companies. In short, I got to experience and participate in just about every facet of high-tech marketing.

Hi-tech product marketing is an exhilarating field, with hardly any dull moments. There is no other position within a hi-tech company that has more influence on a product success. A good PM can spot market trends, capture customer requirements, prioritize them properly, inspire the engineering team to build a world-class product, and evangelize it with sales to drive revenues and customer acquisition. A good PM is worth his/her weight in gold.

However every PM must learn to face challenging moments. Like facing a customer who is utterly disappointed with your product. Or trying your best, yet failing, to influence your engineering team to build the product the market actually needs. Or losing a major deal to a competitor, that simply did a better job. But for all these “down moments”, I find a PM role to be a very fulfilling one.

I learned a lot of lessons during my years as a PM, and as a leader of PM teams. Surprisingly, many of these lessons are not taught at school. There are many useful “tools” I picked up through my MBA studies. But none of them can substitute the “wisdom” required in a PM job.

I decided to write this blog and share some of my lessons learned throughout my own PM career. And if you have some of your own – do share.