Time for another post as we progress through our scaling journey at Layer Systems. This time, it’s on Product Management, specifically the importance of having a full-time product manager on your team as soon as you can justify it in your growth journey.
In the early days of scaling our company, our vision, experience, broad market knowledge, and customer feedback were the driving factors that shaped our product roadmap. When it comes to sales, those selling our product know what potential customers are looking for, and are well equipped to bring a strong sense of customer feedback and market appetite back to the team. However, if sales feedback is a major force shaping our product when scaling up, then could this lead us into the territory of strategic distraction
The one place you don’t want to be as a joint software house and solution provider is triaging and supporting high-priority, niche contractual obligations into a packed roadmap. We’ve worked hard to avoid this situation, but acknowledge that there is a fine balance to maintain strong strategic direction on our product, whilst ensuring our pipeline is full with relevant sales opportunities.
After a couple of iterations, we concluded that the answer isn’t straightforward. Instead, it’s a combination of people, systems, and processes that feed a balanced view of the marketplace into the product vision, leading to fewer knee-jerk reactions, and better strategic product planning decisions; ultimately leading to a clearer internal and external view of where the product is going.
How did we approach this?
First and foremost, developing a strong product management process is key. This process needs to (in the nicest possible way) control and balance the excitement from technical, the “urgency of now” from the sales team, and the desire for improvement from the customer-facing service team, in addition to staying true to the product vision.
We’re not quite there yet, but our vision to get this working well is summarised in 6 areas.
1. Manage Feedback Effectively
Being able to healthily disregard the needs of a specific customer for the greater good is a difficult concept to come to terms with.
This doesn’t mean ignoring customer feedback – in fact, it suggests quite the opposite. However, if you invest weeks or months of development time into customer-specific problems when you’re both a platform creator and integrator, you’re going to end up compromising your product sooner or later.
Abstract the minutia and focus on solving the biggest problems here, whilst aggregating up
your ideas for review by your Product Manager.
2. Free The Roadmap
Create a customer-facing, cut-down roadmap that allows the sales team to communicate what’s in the plan for the next year or half-year. This not only helps the customer understand top line evolution plan for the product but also helps them align their plans with ours. Additionally, giving the full team the un-censored version of the roadmap means they have something to refer to when current customers come knocking, reducing the risk of an eternal idea vacuum that never gets actioned.
3. Internal Education
Sell the use-cases of more complex features or framework functionality to sales teams, and explain what value that can have for customers. Tie this in with the roadmap to provide a clear platform for sales to refer to. This way, problems that can be solved with current technology don’t end up lost in your product management process.
4. Say No (Sometimes)
Manage ad-hoc or customer-specific requests very carefully. Saying “no” can be hard right across the business, from software to sales to service. Everybody must remain disciplined that saying no is protecting the business, not helping it. Encouraging people throughout the business to understand how complex and time consuming it can be to build and maintain a new feature, and how it’s a significant investment in time and resource for the business.
5. Communicate Knowledge
Take sales materials seriously, compile and centralise them.
Everyone in the business, not just sales, needs to be shaping the assets that the sales team uses to sell the product. For this reason, everybody from developers to documenters should be responsible for sharing their creations and content at every level. Developers should take pride in their technical documentation in the same way that service write help articles which connect to the customer.
Most importantly, in a technical product, simplify some of the more technical elements so they’re easier to digest. This one is a bit of a dark art, as you need to be sitting at both sides of the table (technical & sales) to nail this effectively.
6. Identity & Stay Focussed on your Market
Finally, and most importantly, getting really focussed on who we were selling to, and the use cases are the only way to scale out your sales. This almost goes beyond what you’re selling and into brand & identity, a topic I’ll cover in a separate post.
In summary, the Product Manager is not only a confident leader, but a pinball machine between the various sources of feedback, with the challenging task of maintaining an emphasis on product vision and strategy, and prioritising all other feedback in a way that works best for the business.