Is Product Management really all about the customer?

The last time I updated my resume, I wrote a headline that said “customer obsessed product leader.” it’s true, I LOVE engaging with customers and serving their needs, those are my favorite things about product management. I’m not alone, putting the customer first is what many product managers agree on. Customer focused Product Managers are what employers want to hire. Who wouldn’t agree that being customer obsessed is great?! There’s a problem though. This very true and appropriate focus may cause some other things to be overshadowed.

They other day, I had coffee with a colleague who said they had just read one of my blog posts on Product Management. That got us talking about stakeholders, one of the 9 things I said that great product managers have mastery of. Spoiler alert, the customer isn’t the only stakeholder product managers need to care about, and they may not even be the the stakeholder with the most weight, or part of the equation at all.

I believe that product management requires explicit consideration of 3 different groups of stakeholders: the current customer, your future customer, and finally the company vision & strategy. It is not good enough to simply focus on your current customer and their needs. That may be good, but optimizing for all three is great.


The Current Customer

Make no mistake, I am not minimizing the importance of your current customer at all! This is the stakeholder that allows your company to pay the bills, the stakeholder that advocates for you to potential customers, the stakeholder that trusted you over others and gives you more than just their money, they give you, the product manager, their time.

As product managers, we must meet this customer’s needs. Often that means solving the problem they came to you for, delivering on the table-stakes in your space, and providing a delightful user experience that allows them to easily accomplish what they pay you to accomplish. Sometimes they’ll come to you with feature requests and ideas that are related to your core. Listen to these. Work them into the product roadmap when they make sense. Keep this customer happy! They represent 1 of the 3 key stakeholders you must optimize for as a product manager, you’ll always do good work if you serve them well.

The Future Customer

If you are ready to do great work, this is where you begin to evolve as a product manager, when you look outside the current customer as your core stakeholder, and seek to serve more through your work. The future customer can be many things. It can be a customer in your target market, but one you haven’t won over yet. I might be the customer you have today but with needs well beyond what you do now. It could be the future of the industry, the way it works in the future and new problems it doesn’t have today. It may be a new industry you could enter, expanding the reach of your products and technology.

Regardless of how you define the future customer for the project or decision in question, considering this stakeholder will take you and your product to the next level. Serving the future customer allows you to grow with your market and customer base, rather than just selling it a little bit more. Serving this customer is how you become or protect your position as the leader in your space. Meeting this customer’s needs isn’t about paying the bills today, it’s about paying the bills tomorrow.

Keep in mind that serving this stakeholder doesn’t mean you are acting against your current customer. Instead, this is your opportunity to align the current customer with the future, to understand where they are going and get there before them. It could also be an opportunity to ask yourself how you might build for the current customer and show the the way to the future, at the same time. Solve a problem they don’t know they have….yet. Be the hero that solves it before the realize it.

The Company Vision & Strategy

There is one more stakeholder that you must consider, and in some ways it is the most obvious, but in other ways it is the most elusive. I believe that great companies have a vision and purpose that transcend the product, and transcend the market. They serve a higher purpose. Sometimes these visions and mission statements seem corny, but they are the hallmark of enduring companies. For example, at PagerDuty, they don’t serve oncall engineers, they serve anyone in a digital business doing real-time work. They don’t send alerts to the right responders, they empower people in moments of truth so they can elevate their work to outcomes that matter.

To be a great Product Manager, you must ask yourself what the company needs from you and your product. Most company mission and vision statements require inventive, focused, and considerate product managers to make them a reality. They leave enough room for the product manager to make decisions that not only align with the company’s vision, they also serve the current customer and position the product for success with the future customer.

This stakeholder can be elusive in a couple ways. If you work for a company with no higher purpose, with no vision beyond the current customer and their existing needs, you’ll feel as if there are not 3 stakeholders to consider, just two, since the company vision and mission are the same as the current customer’s needs. My advice here is to either help your company desire to be and do more, or get a new job. The latter is probably easier. The other way you may find this stakeholder elusive is all about you. If you can’t separate your current customer’s needs from the company vision and mission. Frankly this is easy to do. You see what you current do for customers, and you equate that to the company vision and mission. You take a bottom’s up approach, so to speak. To be great, spend some time thinking top down. In the example of PagerDuty, what could real-time work encompass? When do moments of truth happen? What are the possible outcomes that matter? If you give yourself space to take a top down approach, you’ll often find that there is so much more there than what your customer is ask you to do today.

This stuff doesn’t come naturally. It is so easy to consider just the current customer, and not the other stakeholders. It is hard to know how much weight to give to each. Do you have to consider all three, or can you serve just two? If you serve just two, is one required in a way others are not? These are all great questions, and you know what? I don’t know the answer! I don’t know because it depends on what you are building. I also don’t know because I’m not perfect, and I am still working on being a great, not just good Product Manager.

As I reflect on myself, I think I am pretty good at considering all three stakeholders as I guide, create, and decide. What I am currently struggling with is selling my vision to others, as one that considers all three stakeholders appropriately, for the maximum benefit of our vision and mission. If you have advice on how to do that, I am all ears!