Practical Rules for Product Management: Some rules just aren’t meant to be broken (Part 2)

By Maureen Rogers August 01, 2009

Pragmatic Institute’s seminar not only teaches product managers about the renowned Pragmatic Institute Framework, it offers attendees 20 rules for product management success. In the next batch of rules (Rules 6-10), you’ll see a heavy focus on understanding and articulating your distinctive competencies—and on getting outside your own four walls to determine what your (broad) market truly values. Read on.


Product Management should help sales channels, not individual salespeople.

Obviously, when you’re developing market approaches and sales tools, your product and company will be best served by your focusing on those that can be widely deployed across an entire sales channel—whether director indirect. Take it from someone who has done some serious hand holding with some fairly hapless sales folks, we all would have been better off if I’d spent my time on things that would be available and useful to everybody.

But is the converse true as well? What about time spent with the truly excellent salespeople?

Maybe it’s because I’ve spent so much time in small companies, there are plenty of circumstances in which I’ve spent what I considered very profitable time with individual salespeople who are pleasant, helpful, and insightful. In my experience, these have also tended to be the most successful sales folks.

You could argue, then, that they don’t need your help.Maybe. But, as a marketer, you still need to acknowledge that you might need their help for reviewing sales tools, great feedback, access to customers…and so on. Yes, there are plenty of reasons why you want and need to develop relationships with individual salespeople. And sometimes that will mean providing them with individual help. The good news? They’re not the kind who’ll ask for it unless they genuinely need it.

Of course, just as time spent helping out dunderheads detracts from working for the greater, common good, so does time spent working with the A students. So you have to be careful not to indulge yourself all that much.

As for spending time wisely, like a lot of product managers, I’ve spent hours concocting presentations on demand, pitching in on last minute RFP responses, tweaking data sheets—so much easier now that everything’s PDF’d rather than printed—when the same time could have been spent making sure that strong, current, baseline materials were made available in a shared space.

Just say “no” to creating a slight variation of the wheel every time a salesperson calls and asks you for something.

Similarly, when you’re eliciting feedback and product input from sales, it’s better to hear from many voices, rather than respond to the bleating of the lone sales wolf whose input is colored by the last lost deal.

But as a marketer, I really want to reserve some quality time with the quality salespeople.


Be able to articulate your distinctive competence.

So why, exactly, should someone buy your product as opposed to the other guy’s?

It may seem obvious that you need to be able to tell a prospect what’s distinctive about you, but we often get caught up in just getting the features and benefits out there. Our product is really good, and we want everyone to know about it—so sometimes we forget to mention “why us.” It’s also easy to fall into the trap of picking up on some picayune feature that nobody cares about and making a big show about how and why this is a big differentiator. I’ve certainly done it: our product is the only one on the market that brings a smiley face upon each screen…the only one written in an obscure, arcane language…the only one that comes in a plain, brown wrapper. But a differentiated feature of your product, no matter how meritorious (or not) is NOT a distinctive competence.

No, your distinctive competence is something that you genuinely excel at—and that benefits your customer.

We all know the standard ones: You’re the most efficient, with the most streamlined service and support; you’ve got the most advanced, the very best product; you’re the most in tune with your customers and what they actually want, need, and value.

What might your distinctive competence be? Here are a few examples:

  • You may have deep-seated knowledge of an industry that enables you to develop products that solve vertical-specific problems in ways that generic, horizontal applications can’t.

  • Your engineering approach may enable you to react to customer requests and emerging requirements more rapidly than others.

  • Your implementation team may be so proficient that they can easily and cost-effectively customize your application.

  • Your training approach may help your customers more easily “on-board” new employees.

  • Your automation strategy may let your customers painlessly and quickly purchase and implement new modules.

Whatever it is, you need to know just what your distinctive competence is. And it should go without saying that it’s reality-based. Prospects and customers will figure it out pretty quickly if you’re blowing smoke here.


Your opinion, although interesting, is irrelevant.

As marketers, we’ve all had to put up with the “everyone’s an expert” syndrome, in which people feel free to second guess and take pot shots at everything we do.

Unveil the new logo? Someone will hate it—and let you know.

Name the new product? Guaranteed that someone will think the name is dumb—or inform you that they once had a dog with this name. (Come on, did someone really have a dog named OmniCentraSolvAll?)

Publish the list of new features? Why’d you pick those ones? Why didn’t you use my suggestion?

Color of the golf-outing t-shirt. Trade show graphics.Target market. Partner strategy.

Doesn’t matter how strategic, how tactical, how important, or how trivial: People always second guess what Marketing does.

In these circumstances, the rule about opinions holds.

But I have to add a big qualifier, because an informed opinion can be both interesting and relevant.

Sometimes the person with the informed opinion knows something you don’t know. Or thinks about something in a way that you don’t. Or just always seems worth listening to.

With any luck, you’ll know who the Informed Opinions are and include them somewhere in the process before decisions are made. (After you spent all that money on the new logo is not the time to find out that an underground fascist party or the dumbest reality show ever uses a similar graphic.)

What can the Informed Opinion do for you?

It can save you from making a mistake.

You might have fallen in love with the new color scheme.Come on, who doesn’t like avocado and harvest gold? The Informed Opinion might inform you that two of your closest competitors are using the same colors, and you don’t want to look “me, too.”

UniCentraSolvAll may sound like a uniquely swell product name. Informed Opinion may be able to tell you that it’s actually a heavily marketed pesticide in one country, or a product that in another country unclogs drains.

You may have missed an important and compelling product feature, and Informed Opinion may be able to tell you what it is and why it’s so important.

Of course, Informed Opinion’s opinion is not so important if you’ve done your homework. But you can’t think of everything, so it’s always good to have a couple of trusted Informed Opinions you can count on.

As far as your own opinions go: Offer your opinions only when asked for them. Try to eradicate (or at least minimize) any after-the-fact sniping and second guessing. (You hate it when it’s done to you!) And keep in mind that an opinion that’s informed by facts and market information is genuinely valuable and generally welcomed.


The building is full of product experts.
Your company needs market experts.

There’s nothing worse than a marketing person who knows little about the product they’re marketing. Matters not whether you’re “just” in Marcom; minimal fluency is required. The bar gets raised for Product Marketing and Product Management, of course.

But as the rule says: If you’re in technology marketing: The building is full of product experts. Developers.Services folks. Sales engineers.

Nice if you can demonstrate your understanding of SOA, your appreciation of MDM, your giga-intimacy with bits, bytes, and all assortments of hertzes. What the company also (and really) needs from Marketing is insight on what’s happening in the market.

What’s the competition up to? What trends—both technical and business—do you need to watch? What’s up with the wonderful world of compliance and regulation? (Eek! It’s everywhere.) What’s going on in your verticals?

Not to mention what’s lurking out there that might have an impact on your customers and prospects—and how they might benefit from your product at this particular time. And just how do those customers use your product? What connections are they making between the features and benefits? What are they asking for? What do they need that they aren’t requesting?

Sure, it’s great if you can read binary, but in the long run, your product is better off if you can read The Wall Street Journal.


Find market segments that value your distinctive competence.

I suspect that all marketers have, at some point, attempted to broaden their market to extend beyond whatever segment in which they find themselves. Sometimes this makes absolute sense. The problem occurs when you start convincing yourself that your offering—as is—will work for everybody.

At the macro level of “distinctive competence,” you’re not going to sell bleeding-edge technology into an industry where companies typically adopt newfangled “stuff” with a five-year lag. You’re not going to sell a costly, hands-on services model to a company that prides itself on do-it-yourself. You’re not going to sell costly bells and whistles to a company that runs on shoestring margins.

At the less-grand, micro level, “distinctive competence” may translate into a feature set (or singular feature) that is ideal for one market. So it’s tempting to think that should at least be somewhat useful for other markets, as well.

But unless that shiny new market really needs and wants what you have, heading down this path will only get you: more expense to attract fewer customers, longer sales cycles, more price resistance, and less satisfied customers. You name it; you’ll find it when you drift into territory that doesn’t value your distinctive competence.

So before loping down the Boulevard of Broken Dreams, you owe your product a critical examination of just how and why someone wants and needs what you’ve got. Plain and simple, if you can’t come up with an answer, those potential customers won’t be able to either. Sure, you’ll convince some of them to buy your wares by sheer force of will. But that’s not the recipe for market success.

You may, of course, be able to create that market success by altering, or perhaps even just tweaking, your product. Just make sure that this is something you really want to do (i.e., something that fits your strategy).

Yes, focusing on your distinctive competence—or even on your simple, technical differentiation—may mean that you find yourself in a niche. This is fine, if being a niche player is what you really want to be. If not, find yourself a distinctive competence or means of differentiation that won’t relegate you to a niche.

Easier said than done, I know. But whoever said that product management was easy?

Part III of Maureen’s article will appear in the next issue of The Pragmatic Marketer.

Categories: Roles & Activities
Maureen Rogers

Maureen Rogers

Maureen Rogers is a senior consultant with Communigration, specializing in strategic product marketing (market identification, product positioning, and product messaging) for B2B technology and services companies. A resident of Boston, Maureen is a graduate of MIT’s Sloan School of Management and has over 25 years experience as a product manager and product marketer. With her friend and colleague John Whiteside, she blogs on marketing at Opinionated Marketers and, on her own, writes about business, the workplace, and culture at Pink Slip. Maureen can be reached at

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