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Surviving Product Management

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In his years as product manager for a wide variety of tech products, Louis Columbus has learned several useful lessons regarding what strategies work best to support the products and, ultimately, the company's bottom line. Share his knowledge in this article.
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Let’s face it, product management is hard work. I’m not saying in this article that I have this area wired, but I want to share some of the lessons I learned along the way. With a healthy dose of humility from experience gained as a product manager for products as diverse as hosted applications and printers, here are my recommendations for surviving and excelling at product management.

Essentials of Product Management

Certain tasks form the foundation of any product management role. They’re the cornerstones of the job, and from my experience, some of the more critical tasks.

  • Passion for your products and their success matters more than organizational power. The role of a product manager is full of opportunities to find passion for the product today, its future roadmap, sales strategies, finding and growing a sales champion, and working with and supporting service. In short, the best product managers I’ve worked with have a passion for their products and their success. They rarely coerce cooperation through formal power by invoking a VP or C-level executive’s name or position. Their passion and intensity earn them respect. Passion is the fuel of the best product managers; it propels them past doing "just enough" to get by—to delivering exceptional work, projects, and results.
  • Manage expectations aggressively. In some companies, product managers are considered the final authority on future product enhancements, current and future pricing, launch dates, PR and lead-generation efforts—even which analyst firms to use. With this much authority, sales, channel management, operations, production—in short, every affected group in a company—looks to product management to make commitments on products to respond to competitive pressure or capitalize on market opportunities. If your company has an intranet, post the product roadmap and product management plans, in detail by product, for everyone to view. Deviating from the product roadmap for special orders needs to be communicated aggressively, as do pricing moves and product direction.
  • Know your competitors better than industry analysts do. Become an expert in every aspect of your competitor’s business. If you haven’t already, get 10Qs and other filings from the SEC for publicly available companies, and for all competitors run a D&B report every three months to see how their business is going. Take the hardest-hitting competitive points and publish them to your direct sales force, including inside sales. Publish the trending data for your indirect partners and keep the best competitive analysis for your direct sales force. Publish "how to sell against" papers on each competitor every six months to capture your current knowledge for both direct and indirect channels.
  • Pricing competitive analysis deserves its own effort. When managing high-volume products such as PCs, laptops, or accessories, having a constant view of how your pricing measures up relative to competitors is easily accomplished by checking your competitors’ Web sites and their channel partners’ Web sites. Tracking your competitor’s price relative to your own on a daily basis delivers the data necessary to fight for price moves and lower per-unit costs from purchasing, procurement, or operations. Consider hiring a couple of interns from a local university to do the daily analysis and establishing trending graphs and presentations. A good strategy is hiring interns for 20 hours a week, working the first half of each day of the week. Pricing from competitors is typically revamped nightly with Web site refreshes, so having interns capture this data during the first hours of the day gives you visibility into pricing moves immediately.
  • The first 90 days in a product management role is critical. This is the time when the best product managers I’ve seen establish their reputations, start delivering on projects, show their strengths and weaknesses, develop alliances, and set expectations for the next year or two. It’s crucial during this time to avoid being isolated and getting buried quickly in email and distractions. The best product managers get out to the departments with which they’ll be working, building alliances, starting to earn trust, and getting to know where product management is positioned in the company and what its true role is. During interview cycles you get the org chart view; it’s time to get the real view now. Reach out to departments you’ll work with: sales, marketing, service, engineering, production, operations—and the customer base. Get out and see at least three to five customers if you can, coordinating this effort with the sales department, and spend time with the internal "customers" you’ll have, going as far as to publish your project list for everyone who’s relying on you. Work to deliver projects before deadline and ask frequently for feedback. The goal during this first 90 days is to become part of the fabric of the company and spend time learning the organization and where its most pressing needs are, before going after huge projects.
  • Grow sales champions, even if you have to do pre-sales support. Sales and product management often have a cordial yet distant relationship in companies. Product management needs sales to run up the most critical metrics, and sales needs product management for product information and support. Pre-sales support is avoided by many product management staffs because it can become all-consuming. Structure pre-sales support in terms of escalation of the best opportunities coming to product management for face-time with product experts. This approach is crucial to building links with sales and eventually grow a sales champion. Just manage your time well to make sure that this doesn’t become an all-consuming job.
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