In celebration of World Product Day tomorrow we thought we should look at what it means to be a global product manager.
Think about the many challenges of managing global products – how do you address the differences between users in different regions, for instance? And how do you ensure success?
To get some answers, we speak to product managers grappling with these problems in different parts of the world.
- Managing a global product can be hugely fulfilling.
- You get to work with a diverse team of people. You learn about different working practices and cultures.
- But a global team needs to see itself as a team and this requires constant work.
- Issues such as product localisation, compliance and currency differences, and cultural differences all need to be addressed.
- Focus on team culture to overcome any national cultural differences.
- A flat team structure with an empowered product team is the best way forward. Hire local talent and do local user research.
- Solid communication practice is crucial to team success.
What’s to love?
What’s so great about working with global products? Craig Pask is CEO at MRC, a price reporting agency that provides business intelligence on chemical commodities across the CIS region and beyond. All the teams he’s run in his career have been global – because “the products were global to start with and the customer base was global”.
He loves that global product teams are so diverse: “A hugely positive thing about being a global product manager is the range of people you get to work with. And the range of experience you can bring to a team, you can build really dynamic, diverse teams if you’re working in a global firm… it’s hugely rewarding because you’re working with a wonderful mix of people.”
Strong diverse teams
He gives the example of Standard and Poor’s where he worked for a few years – “a big multinational listed company, with a global customer base and a global workforce”. His team there was spread across different time zones and cities, with team members in China, Singapore, London, Edinburgh, Houston, Denver, New York, and Toronto. They needed to be spread across the globe and close to their customers, says Craig: “One of the fundamental things of a successful product and a successful product team – and a successful product manager – is not necessarily physical proximity, but a close association and awareness of the customer. The more you understand your customer and their problems as well as the challenges that they face, and the problems that your product is designed to solve, the more powerful the team is, and the more powerful and more successful the product is.”
Digital revolution in action
Sachi Pradhan, Director of Product Management at CX and call centre software company Genesys, says it’s hugely satisfying to see how your feature is used globally, and to see how much growth is starting to come from non-Western geographies. “There’s real digital revolution starting to happen in these countries – they’re trying to skip 10 or 20 years, so you see different innovations,” he says, “and that’s always exciting to see and gives us ideas to experiment with.”
A global team can work round the clock. With trust, the right tools and collaborative processes, “you can have someone thinking about a problem 24 hours a day”. Says Craig: “One of the most critical things about making a global team successful is making sure that the team sees itself as a team.” It’s important that the team invests in the processes that work for them. He adds: “It has to be something that’s collectively done. You’re talking about people in totally different time zones, with different cultures and norms. You can’t impose something on the team, because it won’t stick.”
What’s not such a breeze?
You would think that local versions should be integral to a global product. Only about 25% of internet users are native English speakers, so global product managers ought to dedicate time and resources to make their products easy to understand and use for the other 75%.
But Amanda Lam, Digital Product Manager at Disneyland Hong Kong, cautions that many companies still see product localisation as “translating every screen to a different language”. “It is much more than that,” she says. “Users from different countries have different behaviours and cognitive biases. Different markets have different competitive landscapes, marketplace dynamics, government regulations, and so on. Flows and operations that work well in one market could fail in another.”
Users from different countries have different behaviours and cognitive biases. Different markets have different competitive landscapes, marketplace dynamics, government regulations, and so on. Flows and operations that work well in one market could fail in another.Amanda Lam, Digital Product Manager, Disneyland Hong Kong
Craig also points out that people will use a product in different ways in different parts of the world. The types of products he’s worked on – analytical, data-intensive, with complex content – have to be presented in the simplest way possible to allow people to engage with them. “Customers in South America may use a product very differently from customers in Japan, for example, and a lot of the time that comes down to how work is done in those countries. Who physically touches the products? Who gets involved in the conversations? How much does a senior manager want to be involved in the details of something versus being given information to make a decision?.” It’s why he says teams working on a global product need to be in situ, so that “the people who are the product team, are in those cultures with those users on the ground as much as possible”.
Genesys is a big company (turnover is over $1.9 billion a year). Its main market is the US, but a lot of current growth comes from Europe and Latin America. It has the resources to provide a team to help product managers with their localisation needs. Sachi points out that contact centre technology is very agent-focused so any small changes to products can have a huge impact on agents, “so it’s important to get these changes right”. Genesys is currently setting up in Brazil, and the in-country sales teams and customer success teams are a strong part of the discovery process because they are closest to the ground.
Sachi says that localisation hasn’t been as rigorous in other places he’s worked. He’s worked in organisations where localisation and translation have been done with “a bit of machine learning” and they’ve just lived with the results “till someone complains”. He wonders if localisation is a more pressing issue in the consumer environment, perhaps because the international language of business is English.
Mind the Product has looked at the issues of product localisation in the past, and here are a few posts you may find useful:
- Lost in translation – how do you localise your product for international growth?
- Internationalisation and localisation
- Best practices for localisation
Payment methods and practice
There are differences in payment methods and practice around the globe. In Brazil for example credit cards are often restricted to local purchases and local credit card brands like Hipercard and Aura are very popular.
“When I worked at Spreedly we had a big push into Brazil,” says Sachi. “We knew there was a lot of customer demand because we spoke to customers regularly. As part of the initial research, we looked at the payment methods that companies normally use and what we were missing and the minimum set of things we would have to support.”
Compliance, in all its various forms, can be a minefield. For example, this post, Unpacking fintech product management – user mindsets and regulatory requirements, gives an introduction to the regulatory context and environment of the fintech industry, and this ProductTank talk, How to start a bank from scratch by Megan Caywood, also runs through the compliance issues faced by the financial services sector.
Compliance issues will undoubtedly get more difficult as more countries tighten their data and localisation legislation. More than 120 countries are already engaged in some form of international privacy laws for data protection, and it’s a landscape that continues to evolve. Sachi points to the example of China, where lots of tech firms have been either downsizing or pulling out of the country because of the costs and difficulty of doing business there. While China may be an extreme case, Sachi sees more and more countries looking at how they keep their data local.
Soffia Bowring is Head of Product at online gambling company Flutter (formerly Paddy Power Betfair). Compliance requirements in betting/gaming vary around the world, she says. What’s more, gambling regulatory regimes change all the time. Relationships with regulators are “particularly tough”, says Soffia: “We work on a shared platform with the UK business, and have to review each new product feature dependent on what’s compliant and suitable for international customers.” Flutter has dedicated commercial and compliance country leads to support some of the differences.
Diversity of team composition in many companies means teams have to acknowledge and, to some extent, embrace different work styles and cultures. As Craig says, it’s incumbent on product leaders to learn about and understand these differences. He’s had some training on this: “Some of the companies I’ve worked with in the past, either I ran the training, or there was training available that dealt with cultural sensitivity training, communications and cross-border, cross-cultural training – it’s a measure of a good company.”
But the differences mean it can be hard to manage diversified teams, says Amanda Lam: “While western cultures focus more on individualism, eastern cultures focus more on collectivism and embrace extra long work hours. For example, the infamous ‘9-9-6’ – 9am to 9pm, six days a week – work culture in China.” Amanda cites a Hofstede Insights Cultural Dimensions report for an overview of Hong Kong culture relative to other world cultures. “These lifestyle differences can make it hard to manage diversified teams as deliverable expectations from each other can be vastly different,” she says.
Most companies in Hong Kong and China have highly hierarchical organisation structures, in contrast to the flat structures found in startups, Amanda adds. As a result, many product teams are not empowered to make real business decisions and they may well not have the authority to perform product experiments to “fail fast, learn fast”. Says Amanda: “Failures are deemed as ‘loss of face’ and unfavourable by management, and so teams become risk-averse and only focus on evolutionary improvements.”
In Amanda’s experience, this top-down hierarchical culture makes most people reluctant to speak up and challenge authority, and the idea that you should maintain harmony also hinders constructive debate on product design. She says: “General respect of authority also makes the highest paid person’s opinion (HIPPO) a key product prioritisation factor, and it often even overrides the team’s deep understanding of “why”, their objective evaluation of impact scale, and even their focus on product quality.”
Japan is another significant outlier, Sachi says. Japanese customers want to know that a product is localised appropriately, and they also don’t give bad feedback face to face – it’s a cultural trait. Sachi says that when he worked at IBM they would always get the lowest NPS scores from Japan: “We used to get the worst reviews from the Japanese, but they were always very respectful when we spoke to them. We made more tweaks to make sure we got written feedback instead.”
Other cultural sensibilities can catch you unaware, as Soffia relates: “Accent was an interesting problem I came across. I once worked in a company that created an advert in the UK with a native speaker for the Dutch market. The local staff fed back that it sounded like your creepy uncle was voicing it over…”
Amanda Lam points out that while the rest of the world is learning to live with Covid, the “Zero-Covid” policy enforced in China and Hong Kong is making international travel much more difficult. She says strict lockdowns in Shanghai are even impacting global supply chains and product development for many industries. This is causing delays and blockers in key development activities.
Furthermore, the erosion of freedoms in Hong Kong resulting from the introduction of the National Security Law has, says Amanda, caused something of an exodus from the city, with the result that there are talent shortages in many companies.
Local marketing and training may also need to be reviewed to address differences in business culture. Craig says he’s worked on products where even the description of a product has been changed to accommodate local business culture. He talks about an oil and gas data product he worked on: “In geographies where we knew that senior leadership would look at it directly like Europe, the UK, and parts of the US, we talked about the ease of access, speed, pre-formatted reporting. In India and Japan for example we talked about the credibility of the data, the completeness, the auditing, and the amount of rigour that had gone into the product. It meant senior people trusted the data and had confidence they wouldn’t be embarrassed by incorrect data, and by making bad calls.”
Toranotec: at the early stages of global expansion
Taqeem Bakar is Head of Product Management at Toranotec, an online fund management and investment business headquartered in Tokyo. Toranotec aims to reduce the entry barriers for investment by keeping account creation simple and giving potential investors a choice of just three funds to invest in. The organisation is also trying to connect with major loyalty point providers so that investors can use their points to invest in the funds.
Taqeem says the company is at the early stages of expansion into Southeast Asia, looking at Indonesia and Singapore to begin with. Toranotec is taking a mix of approaches to expansion – looking at both white-label partners and potential acquisitions – “we’re experimenting at the moment,” Taqeem says. In Indonesia, it’s partnering with a traditional asset management company, and giving this partner access to digital expertise it doesn’t currently have, while in Singapore it’s looking at an acquisition. “White label is a quick win for us,” Taqeem adds. In Indonesia, the company can rely on the expertise of its local partner while in Singapore it has a few local people on the ground doing discovery.
Toranotec is still working towards a global product/market fit, says Taqeem. “Usually the biggest issue for any investment product is local compliance,” he adds. “That said, there are usually some common patterns, a user usually needs to give their name, their address, their email address, and so on. It means our product needs to be easily customisable.”
Addressing the challenges
How do you meet the challenges of managing a global product? With tried and tested good management practice, and by empowering those around you. Here’s some advice from our seasoned global product managers:
- Hire talent globally and allow remote working to tackle any shortages in local talent.
- Establish a team / organisational culture to counteract national culture differences.
- Try to flatten the product team structure and empower teams to make decisions. Amanda Lam also advocates forming product alliances with other departments in different markets to build up local insights and context, and perform translation checks.
- Do local user research on target markets. Soffia Bowring has found the use of agencies very helpful. “It’s much easier to source participants,” she says. “I’ve recently joined International in Flutter and was amazed at how great a hosted session over Zoom was. An agency ran a focus group online and I joined as an observer with a live translation feed.”
- Good communication is key, so agree on the communication platform – as Craig Pask says, there has to be a single source of truth across the whole team. “It’s the most fundamental piece – you have to have a tool the team collectively commits to use, and that is the source of truth,” he says. And you should commit to communicating face-to-face on a regular basis. That said, Craig also recommends a light touch on the systems and processes a team uses to communicate: “If you create too much bureaucracy for the team it just becomes a burden and breeds lower performance.”
There’s much to consider when launching a product internationally. It requires a product manager to be emotionally intelligent and culturally sensitive, among other traits. But get it right and the rewards should speak for themselves.
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