Look for customer problems outside of your product

If you want to be a bad product manager, only worry about managing your product. You’re a “product manager,” after all, so that should be your single focus. Forget the other products produced by your company and the other products that customers might use. Don’t pay attention to any customers needs that don’t directly relate to your product. Just concentrate on managing your product and figuring out what new features you need to add to it.

If you want to be a good product manager, investigate problems that exist outside your product. Looking beyond only your product and not having a singular focus simply “managing” your product can be beneficial in several ways:

  1. You will find ways to improve your product. Very few products exist on their own. Your product is most likely just one small piece of a myriad of products a customer will interact with in a given day. Products exist in an ecosystem which includes other products created by your company and other companies. A myopic view of the customer needs and usage behavior ignores these other aspects of customers’ lives and activities. These other products could seriously influence how your product is perceived and used, and identifying the connections between these products can help identify problems and opportunities.
  2. You will be more focused on customer needs and problems. Product managers expect to be regularly identifying changes and new features, writing requirements, and working to implement them in their products. Unfortunately, this can often lead to adding new functionality because the product manager expects to be busy or has a “quota” of new features to fill, rather than doing the work because it solves an actual problem for the customer. On her Buyer Persona blog, Adele Revella relates a story of a product management supervisor who “tells his product managers that their job is to manage problems, not products. His point is simple – if you give a guy a product to manage, he’ll find capabilities to add to the product, whether the market needs them or not.” She adds:

    How many times do product managers argue for investment in a new product capability without thoroughly understanding and communicating the unsolved problem it will address? How much time and money is spent on a go-to-market initiative without first defining the problems that matter most to the buyers, and what attitudes have prevented them from doing business with us?

  3. You will find new product opportunities. When new ideas present themselves, rather than trying to fit them in to your current product — or, worse yet, ignore them since they don’t seem relevant — you can see if they have the potential to turn into entirely new products. These could have a higher potential for getting into new markets and creating new revenue streams than just augmenting an existing product.

While it is unlikely that those with the title of “Product Manager” will instead change now to “Problem Manager,” there is considerable merit to the idea of focusing on managing the customer’s problems rather than the product that happens to be currently sold to the customer. A product manager who spends time and effort on identifying the problems customers face — regardless of whether it applies to his/her product or not — will be more likely to identify more unmet needs. These opportunities will ultimately improve the original product, other products the company produces, and also lead to new products that can be developed.

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3 thoughts on “Look for customer problems outside of your product

  1. Jeff, your post echoes techniques that I have been trying to infuse into my Product Management process for the past few years. I constantly keep an eye out for novel products and features that I could either add to my product or possibly allow my product to interact with.

    My manager is a big fan of taking elements from the Apple user experience and utilizing them in a way that is synonymous in our products. I haven’t been a fan of all of them, but some are spot on.

  2. Looking for problems outside your product may be a little too simplistic. It’s easy to talk about ‘needs’ and ‘solving problems.’ Personally, I don’t think the product manager should be a ‘problem manager.’ That sounds negative.

    The real challenge is to understand how your customers “do what they do” Product managers need to be experts in their customer’s businesses (in a B2B world).

    Instead of problem manager, how about anthropologist?

  3. This is an excellent point.
    One example i have seen is how a clustering software was unable to handle a failed network card.
    While it is not “supposed” to, since it is the Operating System response, the customers spent 2 hours trying to understand the problem from the clustering software error messages.
    Solving the problem required out of scope thinking ( e.g. we will provide troubleshooting tool to confirm NIC is working ), but the result is the customer is much happier.
    This is also the type of problem you only understand when you play with the product on your own.

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