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Transitioning from Services into Product Management


A friend is making just such a transfer and provided the inspiration for this article. She had been working as director of client services, managing several consultants across her geographic region. She has a great network of two hundred customers who like and respect her. Presented with a promotion to a position in product management, she accepted the role.

She is now responsible for product management for the very services and software she used to service clients. She makes her promotion at the same time two junior colleagues were fired by the product management executive. These two product managers were client services superstars who transferred into product management a year ago. What can she do to ensure her fate is different a year from now?

Photo By J.luis Esquivel on Unsplash

While transition from consulting to product management may feel familiar, the behaviors that make you an excellent client services consultant can work against you becoming a great product manager. The work a consultant thrives on—like listening to customers, reacting to, and solving their problems—can actually sow the seeds of your demise in product management. Consultants have a leg up on their peers coming into product management from other functions. They already understand the customer issues your company’s products and services are meant to address. They understand the nuances and details product managers with sales and engineering backgrounds would die for, based on years of first-hand experience implementing or using products and services.

But there’s the trap. This familiarity is a mirage for new product managers. In fact, your success depends on sidestepping common transition pitfalls in your new role, unlearning some consulting habits, and quickly learning unfamiliar new product management skills. These seven strategies help avoid common traps associated with moving into product management.

1. Stop consulting. No, really. Stop.

This may be the hardest habit to “unlearn.” You will meet with customers, and they will describe their problems. Every inch of your body will want to solve that problem for them—you know the solution, you can implement it, and you’re good at it. This is a slippery slope—time spent addressing that customer’s issue detracts from your ability to create the next iteration of your product—solving a larger, perhaps yet undefined issue. Take on too many of these issues, and you will completely “swamp the boat” leaving no time for product management.

To use the analogy of a new product manager for a car manufacturer, imagine talking with new car buyers about their issues. Before you know it, you’re trying to address their questions and complaints about “the rattle in the door,” “how to preset my favorite radio stations,” or “why am I getting two miles per gallon less than what was promised on the window sticker?” These are all important things the customer must address, preferably through customer service. You, however, were hired to create the next generation electric car, not preset radio stations. Learn to say no, refer them to customer service, and keep your eye on the prize.

This was the main pitfall of the two services people who were fired. They were subject matter experts, and continued to solve individual instances of customer problems rather than elevate themselves to develop new solutions to address market needs.

2. Define the prize for your product.

Then, keep your eye on it. As a consultant, your goals were easy and clear—finish the project on time and on budget, and make sure the client is happy with your work. For product managers, you need to work harder to define your specific goals—the “prize” for your product. You may find it challenging if you, or your manager, are unfamiliar with product management.

The goal of the product management function is to create successful products described by corporate strategy. The strategy may call for products that are the most innovative in your industry, the most reliable, the lowest cost, etc. Product management outcomes may also be measured by revenues, market share, market rank, return on investment, customer adoption rates, achievement of business plan goals, or other factors.

For an individual product manager, your goals depend on product management’s goals, plus the:

    • Lifecycle stage of your product (introduction, growth, maturity, decline, etc.)
    • Degree that responsibilities are shared across multiple product roles (e.g., product manager, technical product manager, product marketing manager, etc.)
    • Degree to which financial revenue and expense metrics (e.g., revenues, expenses, margins, return-on-investment, etc.) are attributable to individual products and controllable by product managers.

As a result, many product managers’ goals are associated with completion of quarterly objectives, specific activities and deliverables. As Pragmatic Institute points out, some product managers inherit goals of the executive they report to (for example, the product manager who reports to the VP of Engineering performs testing and documentation for engineering; the product manager who reports to the VP of Marketing creates collateral and runs lead-generation events). These inheritances may be part of your territory but are unlikely to create great products.

Take responsibility for getting clear goals. How will success be measured? Are you supporting existing products, or creating new ones? Are you managing all aspects of the product, or teaming with others? Agree on how to measure results, and align activities to achieve those goals.

3. Shift from “commander” to “collaborator.”

On project teams, in many cases the project manager has a command and control reporting structure giving them control of resources needed for the project’s success. In the hierarchy of the project, “what they say goes.” Not so for a product team. If you don’t believe me, just go into your first meeting and tell the engineers and sales people what to do in the same tone that worked so well with your project team. Product managers typically have very few of the product’s key resources reporting directly to them. You must still lead, but through influence rather than authority. You’ll need to influence sales people to take a chance introducing your new product to its first customers. You’ll need to explain to engineers why creating Feature X is more valuable than Feature Y based on your research. You’ll need to teach trainers to update their training materials, and convince analysts why your product is the strongest in the industry. You’ll need to collaborate with customers to understand their needs and create products to address them.

Leading through influence can be learned, but for most people, it is more time consuming and requires you to create evidence to support your recommendations. If you ran projects or groups where you just showed up and directed the team, you’ll need to develop your collaboration and influence muscles—and gather market evidence you’ll need to influence others.

4. Ramp up your new product management skills. Fast.

Although you may feel comfortable being with the same company and with your level of domain knowledge, you have a huge set of product management skills to learn. You might have previously written specifications for a custom software or technology solution, but that’s radically different than collecting and processing input from 20 – 30 representative buyers in the market. You may have prepared materials to support specific sales opportunities, but probably not messaging to apply to the majority of sales situations. The list goes on.

In fact, product managers tend to perform 30 – 50 different activities, resulting in a job with huge variety of required skills. Examples include conducting win/loss analysis, prioritizing new business and market opportunities, specifying pricing, developing financial models, defining personas, sizing markets, forecasting sales, executing proven new product processes, conducting competitive analysis, building and iterating product prototypes, creating product positioning and messaging, managing product launches, and developing sales tools and training. The list goes on, and most of the activities are new to consultants.

Depending on your product or service, you may also find yourself managing third-party partnerships, preparing services training, and participating in analyst and media relations programs. While these new skills are not difficult, many can be like asking a swimmer to become a water skier. Sure, both involve water and swimsuits, but the similarities end pretty soon thereafter. As you probably learned as a consultant, 80/20 rules apply for each activity. There are a handful of pitfalls for any activity, and a handful of tips for success to help you get the job done well. Why re-invent the wheel when you can benefit from the experience of others?

5. Shift your focus from “customer” to “market.”

As a product manager, I suggest you stop listening so much to your customers—again, the opposite of what your consulting instincts tell you. As a consultant, you focused on a handful of accounts and tried your best to meet their needs. Usually succeeded when your client described the kind of solution they needed—and you could go build it. As a product manager, that strategy will have you win the battle (and create a great custom product for one customer) but lose the war (no winning product for your market). Too often, the loudest voices a product manager hears, and therefore listens to, are the customers. As a product manager, while customers are an important constituent, they are not your most important constituent.

Here’s why:

  • You need many more data points for a representative sample of your market—sure, you can include some customers—but include non-customers and customers of your competitors also. Basing your solution on a handful of customer accounts is highly risky, because your inputs are more likely to misrepresent the broader market.
  • Customers are unlikely to tell you how to attract additional non-customers. Your customer already bought from you, so by definition, they believed your solution beat the competition. They are unlikely to know what additional capabilities you need to attract the next set of customers—especially customers who you are not attracting now.
  • If you continue to listen to customers, you are more likely to add depth to existing functions and features, rather than breadth to your solutions for new or adjacent markets. Apple did not create their iPad because iPhone customers were asking for a larger device, they created a new device for a new adjacent market—people who want a simple, more casual computing experience (and had not bought a desktop computer or MacBook laptop). Yet, if you ask iPhone customers, there’s a long list of additional things they still want the product to do (a better network, longer battery life, enterprise Microsoft Outlook integration, app to make julienne fries, etc.)
  • Most existing customers have a difficult time articulating a solution anything significantly different than what they are using today. As Henry Ford said, “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse.” Customers are typically poor at defining solutions because they are unaware of what’s possible, and have rarely studied what’s available in the market beyond their initial selection decision.
  • Customers are unlikely to sense disruptive technical trends and ask you to respond to them proactively. Google did not create Google Docs because people using their search engine asked, “Hey, could I also store my documents with you?” Google did it because they saw the coming technical trend of cloud computing and opportunity to disrupt the Microsoft Office franchise of PC-based spreadsheets and Word documents.

So rather than listening just to customers, you’ll want to listen to a balance of:

  • People who have bought from you (customers)
  • People who have bought from your competitors (competitors’ customers)
  • People who have never bought from you or your competitors (prospective customers)
  • People who have a sense of new disruptive technical trends—frequently experts and analysts outside your company, in “fringe” areas
  • Your competitors

6. Solve the problems of your buyers and users, not implementation consultants.

Because you are familiar with so many problems customers experienced—and have experienced many of them personally—you assume you are well positioned to develop solutions to solve these problems. Herein lies another common pitfall—developing solutions for implementers or administrators, but not addressing the needs of economic buyers or primary business users. Frequently, the problems that made your life miserable as a consultant lack sufficient importance to your buyers, and are unable to generate sufficient revenue to cover development and sales costs.

For example, for a product where configuration is a huge issue, a former consultant might love the idea of a configuration wizard, because it would make their old job much easier. A configuration tool streamlines how quickly the solution can be implemented, but apart from a faster implementation, does not change the problem, the ultimate solution, or its long-term value proposition —so while it may offer a temporary competitive advantage, it’s unlikely to be a game changer, unless your buyer is willing to pay sufficiently more for shorter implementation times to cover incremental costs. Meanwhile, your product is vulnerable to a competitive product manager focused on meeting the buyer’s higher priority needs.

Similarly, an online benefits solution that “makes data entry simpler,” while attractive to the end user, may not be attractive to a CFO trying to lower health care costs. You might have the best user interface, but if you’re not meeting the buyer’s business need, no one is going to use it.

Widen your zoom lens by 10x to 100x to find the bigger problems buyers are willing to spend money on. Focus your attention on services that are important and currently unsatisfied for your buyers, then users. Speak to the organ grinder, not the monkey, my friend!

7. Now, get out of the building.

The people who dominate your inbox and voice mail are not going to provide the most valuable interactions. In fact, your most valuable meetings are unlikely to take place inside the company’s four walls. Instead of responding to others’ requests for meetings, create your problems and solution hypotheses and create a list of representative companies in your target market, and get out of the building to talk with them.

For B2B markets, focus first on the needs of buyers, their evaluation and buying process, and the needs of your sales department. Once those needs are understood, focus on end users. For consumer markets, the needs of end users—who are typically also buyers of your product or service—should be considered up front.

Your skills as a project manager will serve you well, because as a product manager, you have a portfolio of projects to manage. Your success hinges on understanding your prospective customer’s needs and how your solution addresses them better than anyone else—which you also know better than most. Use these strengths to your advantage—combined with the tips above—and you’ll be well on your way to becoming a successful product manager.

Best of luck on your new journey!


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