The product managers communication guide
Updated: Sep 2, 2020
Getting things done, there is more to just influencing and prioritising - We all know that product managers are a unique bunch of folks who are asked to do a lot without actually having people report to them. There is some wizardry here as you may wonder how does the PM get the job done (PMs don't go to Hogwarts, though they would love to!). Getting into a PM role should not be rushed, just like other career paths there are elements of qualification which the person needs to go through to demonstrate their maturity and domain expertise. The maturity aspect of being a product manager is that the PM is accountable for all aspects of the product. There is no middle ground here, the PM owns the design decisions, feature prioiritization and all the commercial aspects of the product. There is no honey moon period for a PM when they start a PM role. At the get go the PM is inundated with requests and will need to dive in to move things along. An experienced PM will intuitively know how to go about tackling the tasks at hand and will be able to navigate their way through the most complex of organisation.
One qualifies for their eligibility to become a PM by demonstrating how they solve problems, how curious they are, commercial saviness and how well they can collaborate and work with others to deliver tangible business outcome for the company. Domain expertise is a plus.
There are many skill requirements for being a great PM, a lot has been published about being able to influence stakeholders, prioritize tasks / requirements, being decisive and having a clear product vision. The underlying common theme for all of these activities and responsibilities to be executed well is that the communication skill of the product manager plays a paramount role. Coupled with their level of maturity and experience the trifecta is the magic potion which enables the PM to get things done.
Communication is not just about writing good emails and speaking well and documenting the progress of a product. For a PM communication takes a whole new dimension to address the question others will have of the PM. There is an exchange of value which a PM needs to address as they go about engaging individuals and teams, who are primarily Engineering, Management, Sales & Distribution.
Different strokes for different folks
Communication when engaging the engineering team
As a PM majority of the time is spend with the team which builds products for you. You should look at the engineering team as being an extension of yourself, hence they are your partners and the PM mindset should be that this is one team which strives to deliver better outcomes for customers by building products/features which solve customer problems in the most efficient way.
The team dynamics here is critical to the successful delivery of the product roadmap. First and foremost there needs to be a mutual degree of trust and respect for each others work and contribution and the PM is largely responsible to make this happen. This is where the aspect of articulate communication comes in, where the narrative and language used by the PM should be specifically targeted to bring out the best performance out of individuals and the team as a whole.
Articulate the vision, build excitement - surprising as it may sound engineers like to know more about the customer, their problems and how what they are working on is going to help make a difference. Communicating the product vision for this audience should include how certain new technologies could be considered, this gives the team the opportunity to expand their horizons in problem solving.
Get engineering involved in the discovery process, let their voices be heard - its tempting to build a product vision just within the business teams. The traditional approach has been the business decides what the want to do and its the job of technology to deliver. With the rapid advancements in IT, its more relevant today to include the engineering team as part of the discovery process. Many propositions require a lot of technical heavy lifting and your collaborative spirit will only help you build out a more compelling and future proof product and roadmap
Be decisive and clear when you communicate. Engineers dont code in "grey", so the more vague you are the more likely you will get an over engineered feature which will cost you more and takes a lot of time to build. If you are not sure about something specific then let them know that so that they can park that piece of work for later. What you say, results in an action being taken -eg the business analyst will start looking at the requirement, a solutions architect may get engaged etc. So be careful in what you communicate as resources do get assigned. its very frustrating for all involved if you keep changing your mind.
Demonstrate your knowledge of your business and the customers business when communicating user stories, customer problems and opportunities. This enables engineers to think through the solution and its applicability. It allows queries to be raised and further probing. Indirectly you are also giving the team confidence that the work is on the right path.
Explain why something is urgent and what the impact is when dealing with critical fixes or change requests. When the team knows the wider context of the situation at hand they will be more proactive in resolving the matter as opposed to the sticking to the agreed service level agreement.
Be a team player and showcase the success of the team when all goes to plan. Share the sweet taste of success with the engineering team. You probably dont know it but many deployments are done over the course of the night and weekends. Engineers are out there doing the necessary to get things live. Yes, thats the nature of their job and your appreciation for their sacrifices will go a long way in building the trust and empathy.
Encourage creativity in problem solving by being flexible so that the cost of the change is not the only factor which drives the outcome of decisions. Build in latitude to be flexible on time, cost and scope to get the right fit. In the current environment there is an ask to do more with what we have.
Communication when engaging management
Engaging with management is a double edged sword. As a PM you know you have to keep your executives appraised on whats going on but at the same time you have to pepper the messaging with the right sets of data and accompanying information to balance out the narrative. A common mistake new PMs make is that they assume the management knows everything and as such they do not need to know the basics about the product / proposition. Another common oversight is not expecting questions to be asked on the nitty gritty. Inexperienced PMs often walk into the lions den thinking that executives wont be focused on the details and this is where they often trip and fall. Always be prepared for the unexpected when you are providing the management updated and you can start by getting familiar with these areas of your product so that you can navigate through the conversation with character and conviction.
Know your costs, investments and return on investment, this is certainly one way to show you know whats happening to the business that your managing and shows you are tracking performance against outcomes and costs.
Demonstrate where you will grow the business as market forces continue to change rapidly through regulations, innovation, emerging technology and new business models. Customer behaviour and demand for digital experiences are another focus point for senior executives. No one wants their company to be the next Blackberry or Nokia.
Show what customers want and what we should focus on and why so. Justify your product vision and roadmap. Invite your seniors to the demo days and give them access to the prototypes so that they can have a play at what is being built. They love this kind of interaction with products. Once they actually see what is being built they will increase appreciation of what your team is accomplishing and may even give rise to them sharing further insights on where else the product could head towards. Prototypes are great always have one ready to share!
Illustrate the benefits of the product from both the lens of the customer and the end user. Identify this through the creation of tested personas which you can then use to lead the way.
How the product aligns with the company strategy is often underplayed as PMs often think of how great an idea is. The shareholders of the company and the management board have a clear direction set on where they want to company to head. If your product is not setting its course in that direction with the wind beneath the sails then you can certainly expect budget cuts to happen at the very least. Be mindful of where the company is investing its funds and make sure your aligned to that vision through your product roadmap.
Play back the voice of the customer, the customer side of the story does not get heard enough by executives. Make it a point to update them on which are the new accounts which have come in. Drop in the names of hallmark clients who are using the product. This exhibition of client names and usage matter a lot. Keep a tab on whats coming up the following quarter and share progress regularly.
Show the market demand of the product if you have a way to demonstrate it based on industry publications, awards, surveys and customer voice. If you have a big enough business then team up with marketing and get an external agency to do the dipstick survey and peer comparisons.
While the focus of many conversations is on the why something must be done, why investments should be made there is an alternative approach of letting management know what could happen if nothing is done. Your job as a product manager is to not only find, grow more business for your product but also to protect your home turf, and avoid clients slipping out through the back door. The last thing you want is a leakage in revenue as clients slowly start exiting.
Push back on items which have no legs very early on if you believe that the idea has no wings even if you drank a crate of red bull. Your time is valuables and you cannot be chasing round every idea which is dropped on your plate by an executive. Courage up and go back and shut it down if there is no future in it. If you cant go back then put in a placeholder for a review of it sometime further down the track.
Deal with escalation as a test of your determination and be prepared to be challenged. Do not treat escalations as a personal attack. Seize the opportunity to demonstrate an alternative view of a situation and transform the attention on the topic to be your ally and put forward a request for whatever you need to tackle the problem or to proactively solution it with the right amount of resources.
Communication with Sales & Distribution
The sales organisation is remarkably different from all the other departments. Sales people work in a very different way to every one else - they work and hunt alone, not big team players, but forced to collaborate when it comes to enterprise sales. Some sales teams may still work on commission and their bonus component is driven by their portfolio, their rankings and achieved targets. What this should mean to product manager is that sales is out to win at any cost and get those customers across the line. Sales wont take no for an answer and they will escalate and put you in the firing line if thats what it takes to get the deal done.
When developing a new product bring sales in early to help you crystallise the customer problem and bring your use case to life. This exercise will help you in your investment pitch and the backing of sales will give you an edge.
Be clear on what kind of clients are required for your product. Give them the qualification criteria early on so that the right customers are brought in. Have your product collaterals ready so that the narrative is clear on what the product does and what it cant do.
There will be instances where the PM will be under the spotlight when sales is unable to close. The excuses that could be given are the product did not have some specific features, or the price was not right or something else. Do not get obsessed about the loss and get yourself down, use the reasons for the loss as a way to turn it around. Ask back some probing questions - is this what clients are asking for ? are there other clients who want the same thing? is this a new trend?
Use the power of sales to escalate the funding for your product roadmap. Size up the opportunity for an investment which would benefit a group of clients and get the commitment from sales and distribution on the perceived business opportunity.
You cant make every sales person happy and thats the real thing. Money has to be spent on the most valuable customers, so if the customer does not measure up to warrant the investment then the PM should call this out early.
Make sales your product champion by co-creating solutions with them and customers. Partner up with them to host more roadshows. This is one way to build a proactive relationship. Join them when they meet customers and help them sell your product when the client is demanding and the use case is complex. Your the best person to cover the product.
Provide regular product training and keep them abreast on the latest roadmap. Give them access to sales toolkits and prototypes so that they have all the information at hand to engage clients effectively.
Awareness of your audience and their expectations
The narrative shifts as the product manager engages different stakeholders. The product is the same but different aspects of the product are talked about in each forum. The way the PM converses with each party is different - the audience wants to know 'Whats in it for me'. Think of the following boundaries when you frame your responses the next time you interact with these teams.
Objective : Sell more, keep customers happy, increase revenue, rewarded for success
Expectations from PM : Help me achieve my sales goals and get the customer across the line
Don't care about : How the product is delivered, what are the challenges in meeting the customer time, the painstaking detours and changes that have to be made, the cost of delivery and income from the client (sometimes).
Objective : Prioritise investments based on return on investment, effective deployment of capital and meet the strategic goals of the company. Divert funds to business lines which are high growth, keep customers happy and invest for the future.
Expectations from PM : demonstrate that funds have been put to good use, customers are using the product, industry recognition, reputation, profitability and what are the new opportunities for growth
Objective : Deliver product and roadmap items within the agreed cost, scope and timelines. The goal is to deliver a package as per the timeline even if it means that there needs to be some workarounds. Descope and reduce delivery risk. Take on the work as per the available resources the team has. No stretch for the team.
Expectations from PM : Provide clear requirements and prioiritize funding for the work. Any changes in requirements has to go through a formal process of acceptance. PM will be able to provide clarity on the user stories and the customer problem.
The communication skill of the product manager plays a paramount role in shaping the delivery and commercial success of the product. Coupled with the PMs level of maturity and experience this trifecta is the magic potion which enables the PM to get things done.
Being a PM in a startup is vastly different from being a PM in a Fortune 500 company - where everything gets further complicated. The PMs ability to lead complex conversations with a diverse narrative and ability to navigate through the corporate hierarchy is a skill in it self, which we will cover in another article.