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A Guide to Surviving the Product Zombie Apocalypse


Look around: It’s a desolate wasteland. Zombies walk the earth, slowly, relentlessly. They are hungry and they don’t discriminate. Before they turn on you and eat you alive, it’s time to blow them away and send them to their final rest. This isn’t a scene from a movie, it’s your product portfolio. But the threat is no less real, and your need to act is no less vital.

It seems like only yesterday: Your product portfolio was young and thriving. It had a bright future. At first, you didn’t even notice as some products slowly lost their vitality. But over time, most customers moved elsewhere, perhaps to a competitive offering or to one of your newer products. You tapered off your investment because there were so many other priorities competing for scarce nourishment. Maybe your product stopped growing—or worse, it continued to grow even as you starved it. Because these products didn’t mutate into zombies overnight, you can be forgiven for failing to notice them slowly decompose. But they’re now at your door, and soon it will be too late.


Are You a Product Zombie Enabler? Take the Quiz

The more questions you answer “yes” to, the more likely you are to have enabled these insidious creatures to roam your customer base:

1. Does all your energy go into new product development and introduction?

We all know the new stuff is sexy—and customers are waiting—but don’t take your eyes off your existing products for too long. Ask yourself these questions to see how diligent you are: Do your roadmaps indicate the removal of existing or legacy products, or just the birth of new ones? Does each new product or release explicitly provide conversion or migration tools to move existing customer data forward, so you can retire the old versions?

2. Is your leave-no-customer-behind strategy well-intended but flawed?

You chose to let sleeping zombies lie by allowing your customers to remain on outdated products, instead of potentially causing disruption by asking them to upgrade. Now they are far behind, and you’re likely to disrupt them even more when you ask them to climb out of a deep technology well.

3. Did you agree to unrealistic, restrictive contracts?

You made well-intended promises to protect your customers’ investments (a good thing) and agreed not to change or replace any software during the contract period. What were you thinking? Now you must either sell your way out of your existing contract into a newer product, or buy your way out and cut your losses.

4. Does your sales team prioritize renewals over new sales?

Do they discount—or even give away—the older product? It’s generally easier to ask a client to renew than switch to something different. The truth is you have to do both.

5. Do your current products have capability gaps compared to the products they replace?

When you rolled out the minimum viable product of your latest and greatest, you skipped providing complete backward compatibility, then never went back to build these capabilities out. Now your customers have to give up something to move forward. This may be the single most common reason why customers stick with your old products. Now, you must either provide feature parity with what they already have or guide them to a better workflow, so they can abandon their prior practices and feature expectations.

6. Are customers highly invested in and productive with your older product?

That’s a good thing, but now they don’t want to change and lose efficiencies. Perhaps they know how to customize and run older reports, have memorized hotkey combinations, or have built custom add-ons to meet their needs. This provides a huge switching cost for you to overcome. Your new product value proposition must exceed the switching cost, hopefully substantially.

7. Are you unable to walk away from your old products because too much revenue is at risk?

If so, you may need to do this in stages. First, try to sell your way out and convert these customers to your latest offerings. Next, establish a realistic revenue threshold, below which all key stakeholders agree to walk away from the residual business. Or, establish a milestone that, once passed, allows you to achieve the same goal.

Then, begin to tilt the table so customers willingly move by themselves from the old to the new. Use various pricing incentives to drive conversions to your new product, or create disincentives to staying on the old products (like higher support costs, etc.). You won’t convert them all, so don’t make that your goal. Finally, once the revenue threshold or milestone has passed, run an aggressive end-of-life program until all customers have either been migrated or are known lost. Then, turn off the lights.

8. Has a different organization assumed ownership of your product and you lost the recipe?

If this has happened, assign an interim product manager (your undertaker) and make it their mission to transition this product into the grave.

9. Has the original product champion become an executive who doesn’t want to retire it?

It happens more often than you think. But nobody wants a rotting zombie as their legacy. Gather the data, construct the business case (refer to Upgrade Your Arsenal) and convince them with data until they come around.

10. Does change seem too hard?

If you fear change, you’re in the wrong job.

Product Zombie Subspecies

Tigers and Gila monsters have subspecies, and so do zombie products. Here are the three most common.

A Few Important Customers Love It

This subspecies arose because of the oversized consideration big customers often get with respect to lifecycle planning. Remember the Pragmatic Institute rule that you are solving for the intersection of urgent + pervasive + willingness to pay. One of these factors alone is insufficient to warrant your investment. Is there a professional services play through which you can profitably serve these few, large customers? Can you enable a third party to extend your standard product and serve these custom needs?

It’s Not Costing Us Anything and its Sibling, It’s Pure Profit

This is rarely true, but it is a popular myth when you are unwilling to do the work to uncover your true costs. It’s dark and scary in there, but grab a flashlight and take a look to discover where these costs typically hide.

If We Kill It, Our Customers Will Go Elsewhere

This one scares executives, especially those in sales. While you don’t want to lose profitable customers, those on older products often don’t buy enough of your current products to make them desirable. It might be time to let them go, or restart a sales discovery about their needs and how your current product portfolio can address them.

The True Cost of Product Zombies

Zombies aren’t cheap. Here is what product zombies are actually costing you.


Are you still taking calls on these zombies? Were they designed for Windows XP? IE6? .NET V1? Visual Basic? Flash? Are you backhauling new technologies into old products? Can customers still acquire the third-party prerequisites needed to use these older products? If they are still operating, it’s likely they also have significant information security vulnerabilities—big targets for hackers.

Development and Technical Debt

Although you aren’t adding new capabilities to older products, customers expect you to keep them operating and safe. Are you still fixing defects? Closing security vulnerabilities? Testing and validating old code against a battery of constantly changing browsers, mobile clients and third-party plug-ins? Doing year-end or other statutory updates? You probably are.

Operational and Cost of Goods

Are you paying software licensing fees to vendors? Are you paying to host inefficient workloads in your data center or at a service provider?


How much does not accelerating your new products cost?

Upgrade your Arsenal

Pummel Them with Your Product Roadmap

This quick hit list will help you destroy those zombies:

• Explicitly show end-of-life products. Clearly communicate what’s new and what’s going away. Give customers adequate notice and incentives to move. Never add new products to your roadmap unless you also disposition what’s already in the field.

• Notify customers early and often about product upgrades and retirements. Don’t ask their permission.

• Ensure data migration is integral and ongoing. This will help move customers and their data forward.

• Clearly define end-of-support periods and transitions. Provide options for extended-support subscriptions to cover costs and further incentivize customers to move forward.

Crush Them with Your Laser-Like Customer Focus

Unless you surround your core value proposition with sufficient value, customers won’t come, or else they won’t stick around. Socialize early and often with your customer/user community, explaining why it’s in their best interest to move forward. Create heroes and then share testimonials about their business cases and the value they realized from moving forward. You’re also less likely to strand or alienate legacy customers if you give away your last-generation knowledge base and older but still-useful support tools, enabling them to self-support.

Bludgeon Them with Your Business Case

Your CFO and finance team will be your comrades-in-arms, providing support as you hunt down and eradicate your cost-sucking zombies. This is sport to them. Work with them to identify and account for some of your major costs, like those on the summary grid below.

You may find others as you dig in.

Zombie Apocalypse Survival Checklist


• Ensure your current products provide compelling value that exceeds the cost for your customers to switch.
• Confirm that your product roadmap communicates not just what is new but what is going away.
• Define and deliver real value and leverage your user community to champion the value of keeping current.
• Partner with your CFO on your business case to discover and assert the hidden costs of keeping your older products alive.
• Establish a culture of change and constant improvement.

Happy hunting!


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