Organizations spend millions of dollars in research and development to create the next great product, only to severely underfund the product launch process. Many mistakenly believe the product will sell itself and overcome any adversity. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. A successful product launch requires skill, experience, market knowledge, and a process.
Product launch is a topic that either elicits nightmares or euphoria—there is no middle ground. Those terrified by the thought of planning the next product launch understand the expectations are high and failure is not an option. On the other hand, those with great excitement can lack the experience to know what can go wrong.
At Company A, great excitement surrounds the upcoming launch of Widget 3.0. Robin, the product manager, has been focusing all her energy on finalizing Widget 3.0. She’s under enormous pressure; especially given the product is over budget and six months late. Everyone in the company believes this version will take the market by storm. The product is so good, it can’t fail.
Chen, the product marketing manager, has been sitting on the sidelines nervously awaiting word from Robin that Widget 3.0 is finally in a state where he can start planning the launch. There have already been two false starts. The first was an unforeseen technical problem. The second happened when Development—in a moment of false bravado—claimed the product would be ready to ship in a week. Both times, Chen invested his time and energy into planning the launch, only to stop, regroup, and try to save face with Sales. Now, he isn’t going to move forward until he is certain Widget 3.0 is ready.
Meanwhile, Bob, the VP of Sales, is growing more anxious each day the product isn’t ready. He has a quota for Widget 3.0; and, even though the launch is six months behind schedule, the CEO still expects Bob to “make it happen.” Realizing he doesn’t have the luxury of time, Bob instructs his sales team to start prospecting for Widget 3.0 customers—even when the final details of the product are not available.
So the sales team starts calling on prospects, with the hopes of building a pipeline for Widget 3.0. They create their own sales tools (without Chen’s input); and, before long begin to see their prospecting work transition into a pipeline of opportunities.
The saga continues
Robin, satisfied that Widget 3.0 will soon be ready, meets with Chen to discuss the launch. With her back against the wall, Robin provides a delivery date, but little in the way of direction or product positioning. Chen learns from Robin that the new reporting feature promised for Widget 3.0 won’t be in the release, and he’s worried about the backlash he will get from Bob and the sales team, who are likely promoting the missing feature.
Chen meets with Rebecca in Marketing Communications to explain that it’s crunch time. The sales team is expecting brochures, web content, and the usual collection of sales tools—and they expect it now. Chen is under enormous pressure to make the launch of Widget 3.0 a success. The fact that it’s late and missing a key feature doesn’t matter. When Rebecca asks what Chen needs for the launch, he requests one of everything, hoping that it will satisfy the sales team. With a little luck, something will stick and cause the market to take notice and buy in droves.
Chen hastily pulls together sales training for Widget 3.0 to explain all the great, new features. He delivers a standard sales presentation and demo. Rebecca then explains the “air cover” Marketing will provide to the sales team. During the sales training Q&A, Chen and Robin are grilled and ridiculed for dropping the promised feature, which the sales team believes is critical to hitting its numbers.
Chen knows that with greater visibility into what was happening with Widget 3.0, he could have better positioned it to the sales team—acknowledging that, while the missing feature is clearly important, there is plenty of value in the other new features.
On launch day, Widget 3.0 is announced. Unfortunately all of the prospects in the pipeline were expecting the dropped feature—and, as a result, become lost opportunities. The sales team now has to build the Widget 3.0 pipeline from scratch, and they have lost confidence in the product. Under pressure, they focus on selling other products to make their quota.
The mythical product launch checklist
Too often, the people responsible for a product launch seek out the mythical product launch checklist that transforms any product launch into the realm of the iPhone. It doesn’t exist.
Don’t get me wrong: Product launch checklists do exist. They just aren’t very effective, because they give the illusion of thorough planning. Successful product launches require a planning process that examines multiple dimensions and adjusts according to prevailing conditions.
Assuming the product actually works and isn’t a liability, there are three critical product launch dimensions to evaluate during the planning process:
- Launch goals
- Launch readiness
- Launch constraints
Once the dynamics of all three dimensions are understood, then a product launch checklist can be effective in specifying specific deliverables and activities tailored for each product launch’s unique go-to-market circumstances.
Product launch goals
One of the most critical aspects of planning a product launch is to decide, up front, the expectations. Without a specific goal, there is no way to measure what winning looks like. Management’s expectations will go unrealized. Resources will be misaligned. Budgets will either be too high or too low. Without a goal, it is not possible to measure Return on Investment (ROI), which leads to skepticism about how wisely money is being spent.
Management’s expectations for the success of a product launch are usually too high. It starts when unrealistic expectations are set early in the product planning process, and is compounded by unbridled enthusiasm that the product is so good it can’t fail.
Because launch goals are often unclear, the budgets that support product launches are all over the map. Without goals as a cornerstone, budgets can swing wildly based on opinion and internal political clout—rather than on fact-based rationale.
When management’s expectations aren’t met, they begin to question the credibility of the people planning the product launch. The loss of credibility bleeds over to subsequent launches, where every expenditure is questioned and requires justification.
Launch goals provide the anchor for a successful product launch. Unfortunately many launches aren’t grounded in goals that are specific, realistic, or attainable.
Product launch readiness
The lack of organizational launch readiness is a point that many product launch planners fail to fully appreciate. Who is ultimately responsible to ensure the organization is ready to sell and support the product? Is there a reliable way to assess launch readiness?
Product launches can be so focused on the product, that getting the organization ready to sell and support it gets overlooked. We worry about product features, product quality, product documentation, and product training.
Have you considered that virtually every functional area of your organization is affected by the launch of a product? The obvious functional area is Sales. But what about Customer Support, Accounting, Delivery, and Legal?
Successful launch managers understand that launch readiness goes beyond the product, extending into every nook and cranny of the organization. They don’t assume that other parts of the organization will be ready. They ensure that other parts of the organization are ready. They demand it. They measure it. And they make it happen.
The Launch Readiness Assessment
Launch readiness doesn’t happen on its own. It takes an understanding of what good launch readiness looks like for each functional area and a way to reliably test readiness in an objective way. One way to address this is through a launch readiness assessment.
The Launch Readiness Assessment is a tool used by the launch manager as a guide to determine how ready a functional area is to support the sale and service of a product. The information contained within the launch Readiness Assessment is a critical input into the development of the launch plan as it identifies readiness gaps that must be addressed in order to achieve the launch goal.
Consider the sales team in the preceding product launch story. Chen focused sales training on the product, which is not uncommon. Share the cool new product features. Show a PowerPoint presentation. Give a product demo. Is Chen’s job to create presentations, demos, and write content for marketing collateral—or is it to enable the sales team to be successful at selling Widget 3.0? How could Chen possibly know what level of training the sales team needs without a readiness assessment?
When products are thrown over the wall to the sales team without adequate training and market knowledge, you’ve guaranteed at least a three-month delay in building the sales pipeline. There will be multiple stops and starts while the sales team gradually figures out what works. If you’re the product marketing manager, you’ll be pulled into this thrashing process. You’ll create more slides, write more marketing collateral, and develop more product demos until you get it right.
When conducted ahead of a product launch, the Launch Readiness Assessment provides context and rationale to management for actions recommended in the product launch plan. If the sales team is expected to call on a new buyer, the plan should show how they will learn to have a conversation with that buyer and the tools to use to move the prospect through the buying process.
Launch Readiness Assessment
Product Functional Area Sales Widget 3.0
Conducted by Wiley B. Coyote
|Economic Buyer||3||2||1||To be addressed in training.|
|User Buyer||2||2||0||OK. Ready to go.|
|Technical Buyer||2||3||-1||OK. Ready to go.|
|Problems Addressed||3||2||1||New capabilities.
To be addressed in training.
|Buyer Criteria||3||0||3||Mostly related to econ buyer
To be addressed in training.
|Buying Process||3||1||2||Mostly related to econ buyer
To be addressed in training.
|Technology||1||1||0||OK. Ready to go.|
|Pricing||3||0||3||New pricing policy. To be addressed in training.|
|Support Policy||2||2||0||OK. Ready to go.|
|Licensing||3||0||3||New Licensing agreement.
To be addressed in training.
0 = none; 1 = lowest; 3 = highest; a gap >1 indicates area to be addressed
Launch managers don’t live in a world of unlimited resources. They are confronted with real constraints that represent challenges to overcome. It’s the creativity in addressing these challenges that determines the success of the launch.
There are many possible launch constraints, but the three big ones to always consider are: time, money, and people.
- Time constraints. Time is a constraint when your launch window is too short to do an effective job of planning, which leads to readiness gaps. When faced with a time constraint, you have three options. 1) Reassess and adjust launch goals to be more in line with the time you have and the readiness gaps you’ve identified. 2) Postpone the launch until there is adequate time to plan and prepare the organization. While difficult to justify, postponing may be the only option when there is overwhelming evidence that the organization is not prepared to support the launch. 3) Using the Launch Readiness Assessment as your guide, attack the areas that have the most impact on the launch now. After the launch, systematically address other readiness gaps, such as customer support and delivery readiness.
- Money constraints. Underfunding a product launch virtually assures failure. Unfortunately, getting adequate budget for a launch is often a chicken-and-egg problem. More money is available if some success is demonstrated; but money is needed to get to the first success. The Launch Readiness Assessment is your best tool to demonstrate where money should be invested. What’s more, connecting launch plan actions to launch goals is the key to getting an adequate launch budget. Make it easy for management to draw a line between the amount of money being spent and the expected outcomes.
- People constraints. The most common complaints about resources are: too few, wrong skills, wrong experience. The easiest way to highlight your resource constraints is to tie people, skills, and experience to your launch goals. In our example, one of the launch goals for Widget 3.0 is to achieve $9 million in revenue in the first nine months. The average sales cycle is three months, and the average selling price is $100,000. The VP of Sales indicates that each salesperson can manage six sales opportunities at a time, and the company has seven salespeople. Marketing believes they can add 15 qualified opportunities to the pipeline each month. The VP of Sales states his team will close one in three qualified opportunities (33.3%).
Let’s do the math
|Launch goal||$9,000,000||in the first 9 months|
|Average deal price||$100,000|
|Average sales cycle||3||months|
|New qualified opps||15||per month|
|Close rate||33.3%||(1 in 3 will close)|
Is the launch goal achievable given the people constraints?
In this example, the launch goal is off by 69%! Here we see an example of a marketing team capable of generating sufficient deal flow, but a sales team that can only manage 42 qualified opportunities per month. Clearly, the launch goal is limited by the number of available salespeople. By bringing this resource constraint to management’s attention with a fact-based approach, you can better explain the need to address the problem or adjust the launch goal.
Product launch success in three dimensions
Successful product launches are planned with three critical dimensions in mind. The launch must first be anchored in measurable launch goals. The launch goals have to be believable and attainable. Then, the launch goals must be checked against the reality of the launch constraints of time, money and people. The launch goals and constraints must then be balanced against the organization’s launch readiness.
When the three critical dimensions of product launch are understood, an effective product launch plan can be developed that demonstrates how the launch goals will be achieved and how launch readiness gaps will be addressed; something that is not possible to capture in a generic product launch checklist.