Dear product manager: do you have a problem?

Dear product manager: do you have a problem?

What do you think is the one thing without which the product manager cannot do his or her job? Some people would tell you the most important element is the product roadmap. Others would say it's a good requirements backlog. Maybe you think it is a good set of user stories and use cases? What if I told you, as important as all these elements are, they are not the most important element of your job?

A successful product manager must know customers with problems! 

Let's be a bit more specific here. You need to: 

  1. Know some customers, and
  2. Know their problems. 

We'll look at each of these steps in more detail below. 

Know some customers

This might seem basic, but first you need to know some customers. Although your title is Product Manager and not Customer Manager, you cannot make the mistake of focusing on your product only. Don't forget why we build products in the first place! I have known some otherwise smart and skilled product managers who could not name five customers they recently spoke to.

If you cannot name five customers by name right now, make a resolution to go find some customers. But where do you find them? 

One approach some might recommend is to call customers that have submitted requests for enhancements. This is one source, but this is not sufficient! You must make an effort to speak to potential customers in addition to current customers. Many product managers make the mistake of focusing on their current customers, missing opportunities to reach new customers and to understand why they are using a competitor product (or no product at all).

A typical product manager's customer map

Find potential customers by joining and participating in communty discussions, blogs, LinkedIn boards, etc. Find them by going to conferences if you can. Visit your sales team and ask for the names of customers that evaluated but did not buy your product. A great initial goal is to make at least 35% of your customer contacts those not using your product, then graduate to 50% later on. 

Action: think about your ratio. What's holding you back from making the change? Decide on one specific action you will take tomorrow. 

Know their problems

Customers buy your product for one reason: to solve some problems. Here is a simplified equation to understand the buying decision.

( Real problems addressed x Pain per problem ) / (Time & Cost to implement)

If your competitor is beating you, examine yourself as a product manager. Does your product address enough problems that are painful, with as little time and cost to the customer as possible? You might know some problems but they might not be the most important ones to your potential customers.

A customer problem is not a missing feature. A customer problem is a specific need that your user has in his or her job for which there is no ideal solution today. You need to understand how they are impacted by this problem. What business slowdown does it cause? What could be achieved if this problem were addressed? These will give you the pain of the problem.  Practice documenting problems based on simple value statements with before and after conditions.

To discover problems, you have to ask! While current customers might tell you problems with your software without you asking, you will not understand their real business problems without making the effort to ask. Make it a habit to set aside 15 minutes of any meeting to go over what your user does in his or her job, and ask about the problems they face. Go to conferences and ask about problems over coffee. Start up a conversation over Twitter.  Bottom line -- go where your users "hang out".

 Action: Make it a point in your next five meetings with users to stop talking about features and start talking about problems. Document them and share them with other product managers. Make a habit to have at least one real customer problem discussed in your staff meetings.

The best product managers know their customers and know their problems. Look at your own practices honestly and assess how effective you are. Make a few practical changes until your product centers around your target customer problems.