So you’ve read all those books and articles on how to become a product manager, about how tough it is, but also how rewarding it is. Now finally you’ve become one.
I remember when I moved from being a sales engineer to product manager. I had a picture of myself in my new role. I would be great, designing new products, grabbing market trends and customer feedback and transforming them into a shiny new toy that everyone would love (and buy). But reality is different isn’t it?
Not all Companies are Made the Same
If you join a well-established company with a successful product portfolio you’ll probably discover that before getting a new product you’ll be assigned to an existing one. I hope you get an active product, but sometimes it will be something that sounds like “we used to sell it but now revenue has dropped so we maintain it until the time for EoL (end of life) comes…”.
How are you going to manage a product that nobody wants? With no resources, no developers, no release cycle, no roadmap? This isn’t product management, is it?
Here are a few things I’ve learned so far about managing these misfit toys.
All Products are Products
The fact that a product is in sustain mode and has few or no developers assigned to it or no release cycle doesn’t mean that it is not a product. There are still customers who want to meet you and share their opinions, you’ll have bugs and features that may be good to develop and you’ll still be asked to write your epics, user stories, or features (based on your agile framework) and do research around those.
It’s a product and you’re a product manager. The lack of resources doesn’t mean you cannot improve the product or find a way to make it successful again. It only means that you have to learn to filter out the “This is what I really like to do” from the “This is what we can afford to do”.
Let me give an example from my own experience. When I started to manage these misfit toys I wondered for a long time if the backlog was really needed. Did I need to add epics and user stories to a backlog if I had no resources to develop features from it? I’ve learned that there’s always a point to doing this, that you never know if the product will revive, and even if it doesn’t, you’ll have good user stories that could be reused in another product.
One of a product manager’s priorities is always to work on the “what’s next” for the product. It means constant research about solving customer needs and the best way is to collect those ideas and information and transform them into epics and user stories. So a good product manager knows that they need to keep writing down epics and user stories and adding them to their product backlog.
All Products Have Customers
A product manager’s role is tough by definition – we all have our list of complaints about missing features, bugs, and the consequent escalations, delays in releases, market failures, and so on. But managing a product that “used to be successful” and is now on the list of forgotten things is even tougher.
As product manager, you have to learn to cope with this. Your customers still require a roadmap, to talk to you face-to-face, to understand your view on the future of the product.
For example, I was assigned to a product and found myself almost immediately involved an escalation by one of our long-standing customers. The escalation was driven by an enhancement request that had been in the backlog for a long time. Indeed, it was not my fault, nor the fault of the previous product manager, but still the enhancement request was there and nobody had informed the customer of the “why” and the possible “when” we would or would not do it. The fact that your product is in sustain mode, that is less relevant to your company, doesn’t mean that the customer doesn’t expect you to communicate with them.
Your stakeholders still require you to be able to understand how to proceed with the product, and know if there’s any chance to revive it and make it successful again, or if instead it’s better to end its life.
Try to learn as much as you can about the background of your product, talk to your team and everybody else who might help you to build a complete picture of the product ecosystem in order to:
- Communicate with customers in a coherent way, whatever you said in previous meetings and calls count. Don’t be afraid of communicating that your plan has changed, but it should stay coherent with what has been said before. If you cannot deliver a certain feature you should explain this clearly and give the customer as much context as possible.
- Be able to understand the context of every inquiry. The worst thing for a product manager is to receive a question from a customer and not know why the question is asked.
Be honest and don’t be afraid to meet customers. In my case, it transpired that the real issue was simply that the customer was afraid they had lost a communication channel with us, and they were left without information on the product strategy and future plans. The customer had started to wonder if we were going to kill the product, which was a key component of their infrastructure, without discussing an exit strategy for them.
All Products die
Ending a product’s life requires a lot of research. It’s a tough decision to end a product’s life because there’s no turning round. If, six months or two years later, the market asks for exactly the same product you know what bad decision everyone will complain about.
So how do you inform this decision?
1. Do a Market Check Analysis
This should cover two main topics:
- Where the market is going
- What is the revenue/maintenance trend of the product
The first topic is about “what we are trying to solve with the product” and “why a customer would buy our product”. You have to know your market and match it with your product. How far are you from the market requirements?
Then look at your company revenues and maintenance trends. Why are your sales reps no longer selling the product? Talk to them and find out why they are convinced that your product is unsellable. What about maintenance? How many customers are still under maintenance? When will that maintenance agreement finish? Have your biggest customers already planned an exit strategy?
2. Plan the Exit Strategy
What will happen once the product is officially retired? Can you replace it with something else? These questions are really important because they can make the difference between a strong customer retention rate and a company that acts like it doesn’t care about its customer base.
As product manager, you are responsible not only for the product but also for the customers who use it. You have to plan a strategy, and wherever possible offer an alternative to your customer that will still solve the problem your product was supposed to solve.
If there’s no exit strategy then you have to explain this to your people – sales, sales engineers, support teams – and to your customers, because you want to retain them after the product is retired. It’s a tough job.
3. Rome was not Built in a day
Ask yourself if there is still a problem to solve. If the product you’re managing had infinite resources would you be able to make it successful? Be honest with yourself and don’t be blinded by the fact that you are the product manager.
Keep in mind that the problem you tried to address with your product may still there, but could be that the problem itself has evolved and requires a different approach. As product manager, you need to be able to recognise such changes, build a new business case, and envisage a new solution that may not necessarily be the product you own.
4. Be Prepared to Fight
Killing a product is a process, and every company has its own, but you have to be prepared to explain to all the stakeholders why you want to kill your product. Build a business case, do your analysis, be prepared to have many conversations with different teams: support, sales, developers, finance.
5. Don’t be in a Hurry
Killing a product requires the steps above to be carried out carefully. Don’t be in a hurry, but don’t be scared. Product management sometimes requires bold decisions. It’s about building amazing products but also about managing them from day one to the last day.