Most product managers spend time ‘fire-fighting’. They get drawn into so many issues that divert them from what a product manager should really be doing.
So what is best-practice product management in business to business (B2B) companies? What does it look like?
From my experience of consulting with B2B companies globally, across a range of different sectors, and training their product managers, for two decades, my conclusion is that best-practice product management is as follows.
Here is the starting point. The one overarching and undeniable fact that applies to all companies, is that what happens in the market determines their success. Without customers and the revenue that a company generates from the market, there is no way a company can be successful.
So your company’s success is not just determined by the products you make, it is determined by the customers’ decision to buy from you instead of your competitors. And in best-practice, if you are a product manager, you are responsible for making sure that customers in the market buy your products and keep buying them.
Yes, product management, despite its name, is a marketing function and you are responsible for it.
So best-practice requires that your thought-processes are primarily aligned with what is happening in your market, not getting drawn into internal issues that distract you from your focus on the market.
There are companies who still believe that the product manager’s role is to provide support to the sales team, but others now expect product managers to take the lead and determine issues such as; which customers to target – which products to sell – what price to sell at – which distributors to use and which value propositions to offer.
One of my customers defined the role as: “We want our product managers to act like mini-CEOs, to take the lead and to guide others on how our products will be managed in the market.”
This is consistent with the way that other companies also view the role and there is an increasing expectation that product managers should be able to think strategically and create strategic product marketing plans. That is a fundamental requirement for any product manager who wants to take the lead and manage products in the market.
In some cases companies view product managers as experts who influence the new product development process, but that is only part of the role in best-practice. Others give product managers responsibility for managing products in the market, through all aspects of the lifecycle, after the decision to launch the product has already has been made.
However, best-practice involves the product manager in both of these. The product manager is expected to be a market expert who knows the factors that drive the market, customers and their changing needs, and competitors’ strategies. They use that knowledge to help inform their company during discussions on potential new products, and they also use it to manage products through the lifecycle once they have been launched onto the market.
A further expansion of the product manager’s role, which I have observed in some companies competing globally, is that product managers go beyond ‘product’ management and into ‘solutions’ management. This makes sense, because customers do not actually want to buy your products, or your competitors’ products. The fact is, that they are really trying to meet challenges, and seize opportunities in their market. Your products are only valuable to them if they help them to succeed in their market.
Companies that understand that, are more likely to see customers’ needs more holistically and offer not just products but solutions that help customers to succeed. Their propositions can include, offering expertise, service, remote monitoring, support services and other non-product propositions that add superior value for customers. In such companies, product managers are involved in offering solutions packages, not just products.
A product manager applying best-practice has to make sure that their company offers superior value that the customers will pay for, which is both profitable to the business and sustainable over time. They achieve this by applying their company’s resources to help customers fill the gaps in their capabilities.
This form of best-practice product management requires a different focus. If your company is inward-focused you may believe, incorrectly, that you are providing what customers need. The only way you can meet customer needs is to be focused externally on the market and customer needs.
As a product manager you need to understand this and take the lead. I won’t pretend that’s easy. Perhaps people in your organisation do not see it that way. They may think that you are a support person and you may have to change their perception. You may have to carve out this role for yourself by developing your customer-focus, acquiring market knowledge and insight, and consistently applying logical market-based argument at every opportunity.
Your greatest weapon in this task, is to have a wider strategic perspective that looks into the market, to where your success or failure will be determined. Having a clear written product-marketing plan is essential.
On my course ‘Product and Solutions Management for Business to Business’ I help product managers to adopt best-practice, by developing a mind-set that puts the market at the forefront of their thinking. I show them how to acquire market insight and I give them principles and tools that they can apply. Then I teach them how to construct a product marketing plan, applying customer and market insight, tools and key principles, so that they can take the lead in managing their products in the market.