Go Soft: How to Get Ahead in Product Management
At the beginning of my career, I didn’t know what product management was. I worked in sales and fancied myself an evangelist for my company’s products. The back-end technical side of the product was indeed boring, but the real-world implications—like ensuring nurses were dispensing the right medications or measuring radiation levels at nuclear power plants—were fascinating and important. I was intrigued by what the product could do for people.
Our company was small, so when features needed to be developed, salespeople went directly to the engineers. We didn’t have product managers, but even without knowing what one was, I knew I wanted to immerse myself in the user experience and help improve the product. As things turned out, I evolved into the company’s first product manager.
My journey in product management has brought me to a place in my career where I now coach others. Along the way, the skills that have been most helpful are the softer skills like empathy, networking, perseverance, telling truth to power and storytelling. Even though many job descriptions list requirements like agile certification, coding experience and marketing knowledge, you won’t truly be successful unless you master the soft skills.
Empathy and Understanding the User
Early on, my boss realized I wasn’t trained for my new role. I found Pragmatic Institute and registered for the Foundations course in Atlanta. In that course, I learned about the importance of the market, and I latched onto that.
The notion of meeting the customers in their environment resonated with me. I like being able to see what people have on their desks, to look them in the eye. Empathy develops because you’re learning who they are as human beings. It helps us remember who it is we work for, and in the end, that’s the user.
Empathy for the market gives you a vested interest in solving buyer and user problems because you feel the market's pain and make the struggle your own. Empathy motivates you to stick with the user and the market for the long haul.
It helps to remember that there is a human on the other side of your tech. During one meeting with a chief technology officer, I learned that before using our product, he would log into his system every night at midnight. Our product didn’t just solve a business problem, it provided someone peace of mind so they could literally sleep at night. When you understand and care about people, you will have a deeper understanding of what you’re selling.
I often use what I learn in conversations with customers to engender empathy with my developers and to get them to care about the user.
No one thinks of software requirements as warm and fuzzy documents. But when you tell your developers that Robert at General Hospital is suffering because doctors are constantly on him about reports not running on time, they have a new understanding. They want to help Robert. They’re invested in helping this human being who has a problem.
However, you can’t help Robert at General Hospital unless you understand his pain. And you can’t understand his pain if you sit at your desk all day. You’ve got to get out of the office to gather information.
For example, during a recent Cincinnati trip, a client casually mentioned his ongoing struggle with our management console. What should have taken him five minutes took two hours. So I asked him the question that is most critical, but that too often remains unasked: “Can you show me?”
When I returned to the office and described the issue to our engineers, they immediately came up with a solution. And I was able to call the client and walk him through it. His response? “Wow! You just saved me two hours every month.”
These kinds of wins—especially when you’re working with an enterprise product that allows you to have a one-on-one relationship with your clients—are what help you succeed. In this instance, I helped solve the client’s problem while capturing a possible improvement in the product and in our communications with other users.
Focus and Persevere
Your job is to stay focused on the customer and the market. Perseverance is key. As you work toward meeting user goals, never lose sight of the market problem—even if your company does. Yes, this is hard. There are plenty of distractions that attempt to pull you away from the needs of your users.
In my previous role, our support process and system for managing inbound requests required users to do all the legwork before they interacted with our team. Naturally, they hated it. These users needed our help, and we placed too many barriers in front of them.
Everyone internally loved the status quo, but it didn't work for the market. It took years to change, but eventually I won over the support director as my ally. Through facts, data and an exhaustive list of customer feedback, we finally streamlined the support process and solved the users’ problem.
For many of us, our perseverance and passion can lead to conflict. I remember going to my boss and saying, “We need to be more focused on the user. They’re going to be the ones to tell us what the product should be.” My boss cared only about the people signing the checks. His job was to make sure the money was coming in. So I was an advocate for the users, and he was an advocate for the buyers.
But arguing was not productive. I wasn’t getting what I wanted, and my boss was frustrated. So I changed my approach. Recognizing my boss was advocating for the buyer, I spent more time with our buyers. Then, I took all of that data plus the data from our users and I sat down with my boss. This changed the dynamic of the conversation. It became: How are we approaching a customer with both of these people in mind? How do we build a value proposition that’s going to appeal to both types of people?
As a result, we decided that salespeople should focus on buyers, and we brought in technical consultants to address technical questions with our users.
Speak Truth to Power
Arguably, the hardest skill to develop is speaking truth to power. It takes courage to be honest and up-front with superiors. I have done this on several occasions with varying degrees of success. Once, I needed to convince high-level stakeholders that splitting our energy between two projects was stalling progress on both. If we intended to get any product on the shelf, we had to focus on one of t
Arguing with superiors doesn't work, but measurement and tracking does. I kept a spreadsheet tracking the time we spent on each project, followed by a chart that illustrated when we began falling behind due to context switching. Every week I presented the updated chart to company stakeholders. After months of this, one stakeholder exclaimed, “We'll never get anything done if we keep going like this. What do you propose we do?” Bingo! We finally received funding that allowed the team to focus on a single project the following quarter.
It’s important to have the courage to tell the truth to those in power, even when they don't want to hear it. But make sure to arm yourself with facts and stay persistent.
On the other hand, sometimes it’s about telling the customer something they don’t want to hear. I recall working with a medical facility in Florida that was using one of our products. There were things they wanted to do with that product that didn’t make sense.
They made requests of our team to modify the product, but our team sat down and realized this was not the way to go. They needed to move to something more robust. Sometimes you have to be willing to tell your client, “I know you want to do this, but we’re not confident it will accomplish what you want.”
Ultimately, they came around. And with our alternative solution, we accomplished what they needed in half the time and saved them a lot of money.
Weave a Tale
People remember stories better than data or statistics. A story draws you in and invites you to root for the protagonist. That’s what makes storytelling an important skill.
Creating a human being with a story helps us empathize with our customers. So, not long ago I wrote a full story about Jen the Analyst, including what her day looks like, details about her pet iguana and other fun things about her. She became a real person everyone in our organization cared about.
The story had been so compelling that we talked about Jen like she was real. In meetings, we would say things like “Jen would be absolutely thrilled about that feature.” Our team was invested in Jen and wanted to help her succeed. That’s the power of storytelling.
A Fusion of Skills
Developing this combination of soft skills has been instrumental to my career success. Empathy helps focus in on buyer and user problems while persistence helps you stay focused on solving those market problems.
Telling a compelling story will rally your team around resolving those market problems. Finally, if stakeholders disagree with this market narrative, tell the truth to those in power and demonstrate that your product exists to solve the market's problems, not your own.
Though these are not the only soft skills you need to be successful, they are the skills you need to deliver products that focus on the market and that users love.
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