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5 Things Product Managers Need to do Better in 2018

Todd Olson // October 26, 2017

The most effective product managers are visionary empathizers, able to understand their customer, in at least some particular domains, better than these customers understand themselves. These product managers are able to respond to explicit user requests and to think big picture to imagine a holistic customer journey. From this perspective, they’re able to toggle between specific and abstract, turning subtle, often unstated needs into products that seek to anticipate and delight.

These product managers recognize that customers have abundant choices and that this flexibility to choose doesn’t expire at first purchase. In a SaaS-based world, switching costs are lower than ever before. In fact, 69% of companies have deployed new enterprise software in the past 12 months, the majority replacing existing solutions. The implications of this fact should be stunningly clear: as a product manager, you’re now responsible for delivering products that not only meet initial needs but continue to earn their place with your customer as utterly essential over time.

This is all to say that modern product managers are perhaps more vital to the health of the SaaS-based business than any other function. After all, they’re responsible for anticipating and fulfilling both current and future customer need. To do this, they zoom out to think big picture and drill down to evaluate the details. Many look to Net Promoter Scores (NPS) to establish a baseline for customer satisfaction, seeking to connect customer sentiment with user behavior to identify areas for improvement.

Here are the five specific things product managers need to do better in 2018:

1. Start With Why

Famed TED-talker Simon Sinek told us to Start with Why. Why? Because customers generally buy, not what you do, but why you do it. Companies like Apple, Amazon, and Salesforce get this. They stand for something larger than the sum of their product parts. But why goes well beyond the brand narrative. Why should be the heartbeat of the product management function. The best product managers are obsessive about understanding the jobs to be done in their customers’ lives. They’re often driven to the point of obsession with this essential question. Why would someone want to use this product? What problems is it solving? And what is the pain behind that problem? How does it ladder up and radiate out? This line of inquiry is what allows product managers to know customers sometimes better than they know themselves.

2. Look Beyond Your Category

An average product manager is competitor obsessed. A great product manager is customer obsessed. Average product managers tend to focus on a customer’s next-best alternative, while great product managers focus on a customer’s last-best experience. You may build B2B software, but customers’ expectations are now shaped, not just by your competitors, but by Uber and Amazon. They’ve already seen what good looks like and will often accept nothing less, irrespective of category.

The best product managers look outside their domain, taking inspiration and guidance from the companies that get it right, wherever they may live. In fact, it’s often adjacent or distant categories that offer the greatest potential for inspiration and innovation. Category-bound product managers only perpetuate mediocrity. Customers rarely make category distinctions and neither should you.

3. Test and Fail to Learn and Scale

A core component of Lean Startup methodology is the build-measure-learn feedback loop. That’s why it’s imperative to “test and fail” to “learn and scale.” Once you’ve defined a high-value problem, focus on, not the whole solution, but the minimum viable product (MVP). Releasing something into the wild sets learning into motion, allowing you to collect and act on customer feedback and usage data as the basis for refining and expanding the initial iterations.

By asking for feedback within the application itself, product leaders see response rates of 50 – 60% versus the less than 10% average from email surveys. And the ability to combine these in-app surveys with usage data reveals even more powerful insights that help the product leader identify and prioritize the highest impact efforts to iterate toward product perfection.

4. Continuously Innovate and Optimize

The best product managers avoid the “set it and forget it” trap. Instead of declaring victory on launch day, they use this moment to memorialize the beginning of a never-ending journey. Why? Because a product leader shouldn’t stop until the customer is receiving full value from the new capability. Building something that isn’t used is a complete waste and unfair to your development teams and customers. Product leaders need to continuously innovate and optimize until they fully make customers successful. Product managers should seek to earn and renew customer loyalty every time a customer uses a product. How? By never being satisfied with the status quo and never declaring a product done. Product leaders that fail to continuously innovate and optimize will quickly learn just how unforgiving market forces are to the complacent.

5. Capture and Act on Customer Feedback

As a customer experience metric, NPS is simple and elegant, but not particularly actionable. We all know that you can’t manage what you don’t measure. But why measure what you don’t fully understand? For many companies, the specific experiences and behaviors that correlate with NPS scores are difficult or impossible to discern. That’s why it’s so crucial to combine qualitative data like NPS scores with other quantitative measures to get to the actionable truth.

Average product managers think about customer feedback as periodic snapshots in time; high-performing product managers see it as part of a continuous narrative. Critical to this narrative is a combination of qualitative data like NPS and more quantitative behavioral measures and product engagement patterns that reveal which features drive customer delight.


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