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!

More on Product Management (Part 2)

Recently, I published a post that outlined 9 principles that make for great product management (On Product Management; May 23rd, 2017). I enjoyed writing the post as it was helpful for me to get my beliefs in a single place, and I was lucky to attract a great audience. My readers had some valuable thoughts, insightful questions, and astute clarifications via LinkedIn comments, Slack discussion, and direct emails.

In this post, I want to address some of those points of discussion, clarify a few things from my original post, and explore a few more principles that make for great Product Managers.

If you haven't read my original post, take a moment to read it and come back to this one. Finally, thank you to everyone that contributed thoughts, counterpoints, questions, and've helped me become a better writer, and a better Product Manager!

More on the Product Manager's role with vision & strategy

I started my last post out by saying that the role of a Product Manager is to shepherd through a vision...the vision of a Founder, a CEO, or a Chief Product Officer. I went on to talk about the PM's role as a leader, rallying the team around a vision and strategy, and developing products that serve multiple stakeholders. A couple of my readers pointed out that my message might have contradicted itself, and could be taken as a statement that vision and strategy aren't the role of the Product Manager.

This topic gets at a phrase that is commonly thrown around around Product Management, that being a PM is like being the CEO of a Product. I like this statement because it alludes to the type of work that a PM does, and the level of leadership they must demonstrate. I dislike this statement because it implies that the PM is ultimately in charge, that they can do what they want and have no equal in the organization.

While I absolutely believe that Product Managers should influence and contribute to company vision and strategy, and they should set a vision and strategy for their area of responsibility, the truth is that most of us work as part of a larger organization. Most of us have a boss, have a leader we work with. Many of us work at the companies we do because we were attracted to the mission and vision that their leadership put in place. If the Product Manager is setting company vision and strategy, rather than the C-suite, there's a problem. Similarly, if a Product Manager isn't helping the C-suite refine, build on, and advance the vision, there's also a problem.

More on user stories and project management

In my first post on effective product management, I made what turned out to be a controversial statement. I said that effective Product Managers aren't JIRA jockeys. This raised a lot of eyebrows and had many readers asking "but if not the PM, who?"

I firmly believe that the greatest value a PM delivers is not in JIRA, Pivotal Tracker, or any other project management tool. Thats not to say that a Product Manager shouldn't spend any time in these tools. These tools provide value to the team, and Product Managers should be involved in the workflow that takes an idea and turns it into reality.

Great Product Managers avoid being JIRA jockeys by doing two things: they communicate effectively early in the product development process, and they share the responsibility of management and oversight with other leaders.

Effective, clear, and complete communication upfront avoids the need for a micro-manager in JIRA. I do this through a Product Requirements Doc framework that aims to give my teams enough information about the problem and desired outcome that they can create development tickets with much more involvement from me.

Product Managers aren't the only leaders on a team. If the PM is the 'CEO of the Product' then the Engineering Manager is the CTO. Strong Product Designers have been present on every great product team I've worked on, and they should be looked to for leadership and direction. Finally, at larger organizations, Technical Product Managers can work alongside Product Managers to provide direction, validation, and management of the development process.

I believe that the amount of time spent in JIRA or similar tools is a view into a company's culture and the effectiveness of a PM. Product Management does not equal Project Management.

Effective Product Management orgs report through the CEO

Something I didn't touch on in my earlier post was the placement of Product Management in the org chart. There are a two common reporting structures for Product Management: Through the CEO or through the CTO. While both can work, I believe the best results come from Product Management organizations that report through the CEO.

This preference of mine stems from the idea that Product Management is about more than engineering. Engineering groups are singularly focused on technology, whether its the technology that customers interact with directly, or the backend and foundations that the product is built on. Conversely, Product Management is cross-functional by nature, working across pricing, customer support, sales, marketing, and more.

While the Office of the CTO can effectively lead Product Management, reporting through the CEO is a better fit. Like Product Management, a CEO's role spans the entire organization, influencing all aspects of delivering a product. Reporting through the CEO avoids potential conflicts of interest, where tough decisions must be made and priorities identified, and more easily allowing for a solution that might not be an engineering one.

Product Management is about more than code

In my last post, I may have ignored a principle which I feel is so important. The product is more than your software. The product is the entire experience that a customer or user has with your company. From how they first learn about your product, to how they are sold to, how they are on-boarded, how they use the product, how they are supported, and even how they are 'off-boarded", so to speak. Its all your product to the customer, they don't put walls between your marketing and your code, or between sales and support.

Effective product managers influence and lead all aspects of the product. They think of things like user documentation as part of the product. They know that interacting with customer support is part of the value being delivered. Sometimes the best way to move a product forward, to move the needle on sales or net promoter score, is to fine tune the non-software aspects of your product. If a Product Manager doesn't take responsibility for a cohesive product experience, its likely no one will and each customer touchpoint will remain silo'd.

Nike doesn't just sell shoes, they sell an identity. Blue Apron doesn't just sell meal kits, they sell time-savings and the joy of cooking. Software companies don't just sell access to code, they sell solutions to problems.

Am I living in a Product Management dreamland?

So am I crazy, or is my view on effective Product Management realistic? Truth is, its both. I have outlined a bit of a dreamland, a perfect world, but not a world that I've experienced at any single company or role I've held. That said, every philosophy that I've outlined is one that I've experienced personally or seen at other organizations. All of these philosophies are reasonable individually, and together they are a rare but special reality.

Some of these principles are ones that we can do on our own, as individuals seeking to be better at our jobs. Some of these principles require the mandate and support of our organizations and our bosses. If you desire more of a strategic and leadership role in your work as a PM, ask yourself two things. First ask if you are doing the things you can do with autonomy to be a more effective and efficient PM. Then, ask yourself if you are working for a company that wants and values leadership in a Product Manager.

This is part 2 of a 2 part series on effective Product Management. If you haven't read part 1, head on over to On Product Management for principles exhibited by great Product Managers.

Solve problems with "why"

In my last post, I talked about the importance of having a "hair on fire, pay anything to solve" problem when you are building a product or business. For a lot of entrepreneurs, this is hard to get to. You'd think it would be easy, but it's not and I get why. Entrepreneurs have passion, they have ideas, they have drive. All important qualities and a great way to start, but those qualities often lead to blinders that keep you from focusing externally on the customer and the problem you can solve faster/better/cheaper.

There is actually a very simple technique to help you find the real problem customer's will pay you to solve. It's a technique that comes from conflict resolution/problem solving. The technique is called "5 whys" and it's the idea of asking why 5 times. The theory goes, within 5 questions of "why," you'll get to the root of the problem or issue.

Let's look at an example that is common is many of your personal lives:

Your significant other (S/O): "I'm mad at you."

You: "why?"

S/O: "Because you didn't take out the trash."

You: "Why does that make you mad?"

S/O: "Because I shouldn't have to ask you to do some of the work around the house."

You: "Why is that a problem now when it hasn't been before?"

S/O: "Because you know I am working long hours this week at work, and the kids started school again this week so there is so much to keep up on."

Based on that interaction, with just 3 questions, you've learned that the problem isn't that you didn't take out the trash, the problem is that you didn't recognize your significant other's need for more help. They don't necessarily need you to take out the trash, they need you to have some empathy, understand the situation and be proactive.

If your significant other was a customer, they wouldn't pay you to take out the trash, but they would pay you to have empathy, understanding, and be proactive. The problem isn't the trash! Had you not asked why, you'd think it was the trash. Had you not asked why 3 times, you wouldn't know the real problem is empathy, understanding, and being proactive.

At this point, you might think I'm a bit crazy with this example, but it does have a direct relationship to you and your customers. The first problem you discuss is probably NOT the problem they'll pay you to solve. The problem they'll pay you to solve is often deeper, and understanding the real problem will lead to significant business and financial success.

The best way for me to drive this point home is to share a real life example. I'm lucky to be called an advisor to an exciting startup named TalentIQ. They are in the big data space, and can be described as a "people intelligence" company. They keep databases about people up-to-date with current and relevant information that can't be easily found, verified, or understood otherwise. They sell this value to talent recruiting, sales, and financial organizations. The product that customers pay for today is not the product the founders started with.

Sean and Henry originally recognized that hiring top talent is hard, in part because the best talent already has a job and isn't applying for a new one. So they built a sourcing tool, a search product that recruiters could use to easily find the best talent based on specific criteria, regardless of employment status. They had success with this product and dozens of customers, some household names, started using the software.

The sales were coming in, but not at the rate they wanted. So they continued to interview their customers, and asked "what makes your job as talent recruiters difficult?" When they got an answer, they continued to ask "why?" They dug deeper. Then they learned that while customers did indeed have a need for their original software, they actually had a bigger problem. They had stale databases with thousands of past applicants, and the perfect candidate for a new role may be in that database. However, the information in that database was likely wrong...if for no other reason than it was old...out of date. Even better, TalentIQ's technology could easily solve that problem, it was an easy shift and was inline with their original vision.

Sean and Henry had their "ah-ha" moment, because they had the perseverance and humble nature to go beyond the surface, and dig deeper. They asked why. Over and over again. The sales started rolling in, at a rate even greater than they had imagined. Today they enjoy a rapidly growing business, with mind-blowing revenues that most companies would envy for the first year of their existence.

What Sean and Henry did may seem simple, but it's hard. Really hard. As entrepreneurs, we have to be open to changing the original product we envisioned, in order to meet our customers needs. We also need to remain unsatisfied with initial traction. It's easy for a few people, a few customers, to say our product is good. Great business aren't built on a few customers, they are built on hundreds, thousands, even millions. You won't get to that level unless you are willing to ask "why," over and over again. Get out of your own way, dig deep, and get to the real problem.

Don't just take my word for it, or the example of TalentIQ. Look at other companies. Uber's most popular product is UberX, but their original idea was town cars/limos driven by professional drivers (Uber Black). Twitter started out as a group text messaging concept, but I doubt anyone uses their text messages features today. These examples go on and on, as do the examples of companies that were never smart enough to dig deeper. Which category will you be in?

The startup problem

Recently, I had the rare and exhilarating opportunity to meet with 7 different startups in a single day. I heard seven product pitches. Seven teams of entrepreneurs so passionate about their companies, they are wiling to risk it all. Do you know what I didn't hear? Seven problem statements. Seven reasons the world needed what they were building. Seven reasons that the risk was worth it.

Its not that none of the seven were solving a problem, its that some of them didn't (or couldn't) articulate it. Instead, they focused on the solution. The cool new thing they were building. The software that would make something happen. Frequently jumping right into the what and how, without the why.

If you are a startup entrepreneur, your #1 job is to passionately and convincingly explain the problem you are solving. Can't do that? Stop everything you are doing, and obsess over this requirement. Your goal should be a 1-3 sentence problem statement. So clear that someone not familiar with the industry you are in, can understand it. I don't care if you are in the nuclear physics or open source software industries, you should be able to clearly explain the problem to the average person you encounter in your life.

Why does it matter? Because as an entrepreneur, you are always selling. Not just selling to your customers, selling to everyone. Selling the opportunity to investors and potential employees. Selling board members, mentors, and advisors on helping you. Selling your spouse on why its worth the risk to put it all on the line for this. Sell your friends on the reason you haven't seen them in ages. Selling the stranger at the cocktail party on the fact that you actually do important work, and aren't crazy.

Now, if you are a high growth startup entrepreneur, knowing the problem you are solving and passionately telling everyone about it is just the first step. The next step is to make sure you are solving a 10x problem. A 10x problem is one you can solve 10 times better than the alternatives, or solve the problem for 1/10th the cost of your competitors. You sell your product for 20% less than the competition? So what, thats not enough. Your product is 30% faster than the competition? Get out of here, not good enough.

Your customers have an alternative to your product. Maybe its not a direct competitor, but at the very least the alternative is the status quo. Doing nothing or continuing the way they've always dealt with the problem.

Now, you are asking them to make a change, to switch to your product instead.  The price of your product isn't the only cost to the customer. There is a switching cost. Not just the real costs to switch, but the inferred costs as well. The cost associated with taking a chance on you, the risk that you'll actually deliver on what you say you will. That you'll be around in the future and be able to grow with them. That you'll be the partner they need.

Customers won't switch to a startup for 20% cheaper or 30% faster. You need to be 10x better.

In my next post, I'll share with you a crazy simple technique to help get past the surface an opportunity, and down to the 10x problem.

Build better products by vacationing more

Throughout my life, I've been lucky to do a moderate amount of travel. In the last couple years, my travel has increased significantly, including international destinations for work and play. In fact, over the past 12 months, I've traveled to Spain, Switzerland, Germany, Thailand, Mexico (x2), and even a small town on Canada's Vancouver island (via float plane, of course!).

While traveling, I can't help but notice the differences in the lives of the locals compared with mine back home. I'm talking small things, not the obvious things like income or weather differences. Lately, I can't stop thinking about these differences and how they should change the way I build products. They should change the way you build products. They should change the way everyone builds products.

Below are some of the small observations I've made while traveling this year and thoughts on how they might impact how products are built.



Do you have a manual or automatic transmission vehicle? If you are reading from the US or Canada, you likely have an automatic transmission. About 95% of new cars sold in the US have an automatic transmission. An automatic sure makes it easy for us to do other things in the car, like pull up Waze and get directions to our destination, or accept a new passenger in the Uber Partner app for those of you that drive for the transportation company.

However, outside of the US and Canada, I've observed manual transmissions dominating markets. From old, beat up, compact taxis to large, luxury, 10 person vans, manual transmissions are the norm in many countries (Thailand, Mexico, etc).

Now, think about using Waze, Uber's Partner app, Spotify, or any other mobile app you use in the car. Think your usage would be the same if you almost always have 1 hand on the stick shift? I bet not.

Differences in transportation go beyond that. I noticed in Barcelona and Bangkok, scooters and motorcycles are everywhere! Its possible that there are more scooter riders than car drivers in these cities. Knowing that, if your product was used for or during transportation, would you build it the same for scooter riders as car drivers? I wouldn't.

Also in Thailand, Tuk Tuks are the way to get around! Scooters modified to have seating for 2 behind or next to the driver! However, for those that do drive cars in Thailand, they all have these small, sharply curved mirrors at the very front corners of their hoods. What for? Turns out, Thai's drive through some VERY tight spaces, and this mirror helps the driver know how close they are to hitting another car, a wall, or a tree. They drive within centimeters of obstacles on a regular basis. If you are a car designer who's product will be sold into Asia, you probably should think about this before adding that bubbly fender design!

Finally, while Uber has made getting around a breeze in most cases, I experienced a problem recently that doesn't happen to me in the US. While in Mexico City earlier this month, I relied on Uber to get where I needed to go. It was easy, specific, cheap, and crossed the language barrier. There was one problem though: many of the destinations I wanted to go to where not in Uber's mapping database. I've taken for granted that every business or home that I want to go to in the US can be looked up quickly in the Uber app, pinpointing my drop-off location. Not true in Mexico City. Want to go to that great taco stand you read about on TripAdvisor? Don't expect to type the name into Uber and have a pin dropped in the perfect location! This happened to me about 3 times on during my long weekend there and appears to be common. Time to brush up on my Spanish!

Phones & Communication

If you live in a major metropolitan area in the US, especially on the west or east coasts, you are surrounded by iPhones. About 64% of American adults own smartphones, and about 47% of them use an iPhone. Now zoom out and look at the entire world. Less than half of mobile phone users around the world use a smartphone, and of those that do, Android dominates!

In fact, on a trip to Mexico City recently, I don't think I saw a single iPhone in the hands or vehicle of a local. Samsung/Android phones were the norm. In Thailand, outside of Bangkok, it was rare to see a smartphone at all. What the industry calls Feature Phones were the norm (in-between a basic phone with no advanced features, and a full on smart phone with fast web browsing, apps, etc). Building a mobile product for use outside of the US? You better think about these numbers and make sure you are building a product that your intended user can actually use.

Paying for things

Until I began traveling more internationally, I took for granted my reliance on credit/debit cards. At home, I almost NEVER have cash or change on me. This habit had to change when I began traveling internationally more. Go ahead, try to pay for something with a credit card on an island in Thailand. Almost impossible.

Cash is king in many destinations outside of the US, Canada, and Europe. In fact, even in Europe I am required to us cash more often than in the US. Most cabs in Barcelona have credit card machines, but some literally don't! Its nice to know that before you take a ride somewhere :)

In Thailand, I found that many cab and Tuk Tuk drivers didn't have change! Don't try to take a 30 baht ride and try to pay with a 1,000 baht bill. I did this once, and the Tuk Tuk driver had to take me to a 7-11 where I bought a water bottle and got change in smaller bills.

Even when you can pay with a credit/debit card, there are differences. Until recently, none of my debit/credit cards had chips in them. When paying for something in Europe, I found myself having to show the cab driver or restaurant employee how to run a credit card with a stripe instead of a chip. Seriously, it was foreign to them! Think about this if your product accepts physical credit cards and you want to sell your product outside of your home country/region.

This knowledge isn't just valuable when conducting a transaction. If you make wallets, pants and other personal items, remember that in some countries, your user is typically caring around currency. Paper bills, often pockets full of coins. What can you do to make their lives easier? Reinforce pant pockets to handle the change people carry? Provide more room for cash and less room for credit cards in a wallet? These are obvious ideas, I bet one of you out there has a much more brilliant idea!


These are just a few of my observations, and while small, they could make or break the success of your product. So, what differences have you observed while traveling? What have you done to make your product more accessible to users in regions outside of your own? Let me know on Facebook or Twitter using the links at the bottom of this page!