Amazing Product Managers and Product Owners (“PMs” and “POs”, respectively) are more than just people who have a vision for their products and have a pulse on the latest technology so they can deliver the best products possible to their customers. Amazing Product Managers don’t just manage the product, they also manage their customers, internal and external.
While I could probably generate a list of core principles (on which I’d include things like honesty and transparency), my focus here is on three key activities that Product Managers and Product Owners must do to successfully manage their customers.
- Present a Clear Vision/Roadmap
- Deliver Valuable Features that Solve Customers’ Problems
- Tell Customers “No”
What I love about Agile methodologies is that they emphasize the above key activities, even though these are activities that PM/POs should be doing regardless of whether they are managing products using predictive or adaptive methods.
Present a Clear Vision/Roadmap
This almost seems like a no-brainer.
In the past, when I wanted to present a roadmap to clients, my leadership had two objections: 1) they didn’t want our competitors to get ahold of it and know where we were going, and 2) they didn’t want to give our clients a roadmap that we likely wouldn’t hit anyway.
Competitors may get ahold of it…
In a waterfall world, where you plan for a year and produce 2-5 year roadmaps, it may be scary to give out your roadmap because a more (little “A”) agile competitor could come and eat your lunch. In an Agile world, your roadmap should be maybe 6 months out at best, and you should understand the features well enough to know you can actually deliver those features in 6 months. If a competitor gets their hands on that roadmap, does it really matter? You’ll have delivered it by the time they are able to plan and deliver that feature.
We won’t hit our roadmap and don’t want to fan the flames of wishful thinking…
I couldn’t agree more. You don’t want to set unrealistic expectations. But if you are basically admitting that you’re so unpredictable as a development team that you can’t present a roadmap with some reasonable degree of certainty that you’ll hit it, isn’t that the real problem? The focus should be on how to become so predictable that you can present your roadmap to your clients. Luckily, Agile methodologies have robust estimation techniques to help teams become more predictable in their delivery.
Deliver Valuable Features that Solve Customers’ Problems
Delivering your customers’ most needed features demonstrates they are important more powerfully than “listening to them.”
From time to time, depending on technical debt and how good the company has been historically at prioritizing features, it may be necessary to hold therapy sessions during which customers get to complain about all the things they don’t like or ask for things they’d really like to have. Those therapy sessions can be valuable, but actually delivering is how you demonstrate you’ve heard them.
If you deliver the defect fixes, minor enhancements, and new features that your customers truly value the most, you won’t need to tell them that you’re listening or hold meetings to listen to them as a demonstration of how much you care, because they’ll already know. They’ll already be happy. If they’re not, then you need to ask yourself how you can improve at delivering value: odds are in that case, you’re not really delivering the highest value items first.
The Weighted Shortest Job First (WSJF) method popularized by SAFe® is very effective at prioritizing features to maximize value delivery to your customers.
Tell Your Customers “No”
I gained the support of my customers when I was a PM because I actually said “No.”
The people who preceded me used to give squishy answers about delivery, and would say everything was a great suggestion that would be considered at some point. Their theory, I suppose, is that they didn’t want to say “no” to a customer; however, that behavior infuriated our customers because they were being told we were considering everything, yet we never delivered anything.
The truth is, saying every idea is a great idea that we’ll consider at some point is a lie. Every product has a giant backlog with new business features, architectural features, defect fixes, minor enhancements, etc. If every idea is added to the backlog, your backlog becomes a junk drawer. Realistically, the stuff at the bottom will never get done.
Be honest about that and say “No.”
Customers don’t want to be shined-on or glad-handled. They want honest answers. They may not agree, and they may temporarily be dissatisfied that you didn’t view their “want” as important enough to consider, but they’ll ultimately be glad they got a straight answer.
Nothing is more malignant to the satisfaction of your customers than constantly being “listened to” without anything changing. At some point, your customers will stop giving feedback because they know it’s not really going to change anything; rather, they’ll become cynical when they don’t feel valued. It’s insidious.
Remember: Your customers don’t get in a room to tell you about their problems because they need free therapy. They have jobs that require their attention and they would rather not spend time explaining their problems. The conversations are a means to an end. People don’t want to be heard; they want their problems fixed.