Waiter: SE, Salesperson, or Product Manager?


Often when I am eating out, I ask the waiter for a recommendation. And so often the response is the same: the waiter responds by telling me what she prefers. Frankly, I don’t care what my waiter prefers! In fact, when I imagine my waiter eating, it reduces my own appetite.

I am really asking (i) what this restaurant specializes in, (ii) what is the most successful or interesting dish to most other customers, and (iii) what dish might fit best with my “goals” for this meal.

The waiter is in such a perfect position to help. She has contact with more eaters than anyone in the restaurant! If she is paying attention, she should have a good sense for what dishes are left unfinished and which ones receive rave reviews. She could respond with “what kind of meal are you in the mood for?”, or, “are you really hungry or looking for something rather light?” With that information in mind, she could recommend something that matches what I’m after and is most popular among her other customers.

Relevant to product management? I think it is:

  • are your sales people inquiring about customer goals before they send the quote or set up the demo?
  • do your sales people understand the typical goals of their prospects? Can they match prospect goals with individual capabilities of your product?
  • when you are talking with people from development, marketing, sales, operations, finance, etc., do they see you as the person who speaks for the customer, or just another person with an opinion?

As the product manager, you need to be the person who speaks to the most customers and prospects in open-ended conversations, and you should also have the broader data based on closed-ended questions.

Please don’t be like my waiter. Gather the data and share it with marketing, development, and sales. This is the best way to garner respect and cultivate your position as the true leader of your product line.

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8 responses to “Waiter: SE, Salesperson, or Product Manager?

  1. > As a product manager, you need to be the person who speaks to the
    > most customers and prospects in open-ended conversations

    How does this square up with Saeed’s post yesterday (How to be a great PM pt 5)? One of his diagrams shows the lines of communication within a company, and seems to show no customer Prod Mgr communication. Is this something that will depend on the scale of the company concerned, and the nature of the customers?

    I can see that a smaller company would be likely to have multiple roles performed by one person, unlike a larger company. I can also see that if you are in the business of supplying a few large customers rather than many small customers, that Product Management can interface directly with customers.

    What rules of thumb do you have to reconcile yours and Saeed’s approaches? Or is one of you just plain wrong!

  2. I’ll leave it to Saeed to defend the idea of no PM – customer communication. For me it’s axiomatic that you need to be the voice of the market as PM, or you become a project manager at best, court jester at worst.

    I know that Saeed would agree with me. In fact he has been accused of speaking with too many customers! I’ll let him explain.

  3. I agree with you that a Product Manager needs to ‘be the voice of the market’, at least within the company. After all, who else will advocate on behalf of the customers? But there is a difference between speaking for the customers and speaking to the customers. Maybe this is the source of the distinction between this article and Saeed’s.

    Again, I think that the size of the company and the size of the customer base may constrain direct communications with customers, but obviously the information from customers must reach the Product Manager somehow.

    Thanks for your response, Alan. I look forward to Saeed commenting on this matter.

  4. Michael, it would be interesting to hear more about your perspective and experience on this topic. If you have been constrained on customer communications in the past, how have you retained the authoritative “voice of the market”? How do speak for someone without speaking to them?

  5. I’ll try to explain what I mean as briefly as I can – it isn’t my intention to monopolize your blog!

    I think we all agree that a Product Manager needs to speak on the customer’s behalf within the company. And for that to be possible, a PM needs some insight into how a customer views the product. There are a whole bunch of other facets but let’s just concentrate on this one. How does the PM gain this insight?

    1.) You could talk directly to customers. This strikes me as being an excellent idea, as long as your customers are a) accessible, b) of a number that is manageable and c) want to talk to you.

    2.) You could talk to a sample of customers (via focus groups or user group meetings or similar). This gets you face to face contact with some of your customers. This approach helps to restrict the number to a manageable size, and gets you people who are willing to talk to you. There is a risk of bias in your sample here, but hopefully it is manageable.

    3.) You could rely on voluntary feedback (like those ghastly product registration cards so many things seem to come with). This is poor, as the return rate is very low, the comments tend not to be useful, and there is a strong measure of self-selection of the customers who choose to return them. Also, there is no dialog – only a single question/answer cycle.

    4.) You could trawl the web looking for blog entries about your product. This can have very mixed results – sometimes you find a detailed, considered review, and sometimes you find rubbish.

    5.) You could solicit feedback from your own sales team. They aren’t really focussed on the same things as you, but they might let slip a clue or two about what customers keep asking about.

    6.) You could ask your support staff what problems customers keep coming up against. Maybe a better solution for these problems can be found. Sometimes you can find warning signs of problems customers aren’t even aware they have yet.

    7.) You could talk to industry pundits, who will guess what customers think of your product. Used in addition to other approaches, this can work well, but used alone it might be dangerous.

    8.) You could ignore the customers and assume that they want what you want. Simply advocate your own ideal product and ship that. This is closest to my own experience, sadly.

    Obviously, there are a huge number of variations in addition to the handful I have given here, but my point is that there are many ways of formulating the model of your customers that you need. Some seem clearly better than others, but some are not always possible. Only the first two involve direct 2-way communication with customers.

    Whilst I don’t want to put words in your mouths, I think you are advocating approach 1, whereas Saeed’s diagram implicitly suggests a blend of 5, 6 and 7. Both sound sensible in different contexts to me, which is why I asked the original question. What rules of thumb do you use to decide when certain approaches will be more appropriate in specific situations?

    Maybe the answer is simply to talk to customers when you can, and make do with secondary sources when you have to. Just make sure that you have some sources to work with.

  6. >How does this square up with Saeed’s post yesterday (How to be a
    >great PM pt 5)? One of his diagrams shows the lines of communication
    >within a company, and seems to show no customer Prod Mgr
    >communication. Is this something that will depend on the
    >scale of the company concerned, and the nature of the >customers?

    Michael, thanks for the comments. Keep them coming.

    The diagram you referenced was intended to be a representative, and not a literal example of the connections that exist within various groups. I did qualify the diagram by saying:

    “…and to keep the diagram from becoming cluttered, a number of links that rightfully should be shown are not.”

    One specific set of connections I was thinking about when I wrote that line were the connections of Product Management and external (red) groups such as customers.

    PMs absolutely must “get out of the building”, enter the real world and get into the frames of reference of customers, partners, competitors etc. It is a key part of their role. In some companies that is easier to do than in others, but if I can’t imagine a true PM who gets 100% of their information indirectly.

  7. Thanks for the clarification Saeed. I noticed your qualification, but assumed that all the PM links were correct, but that you had ignored some others that weren’t pertinent to product management.

    To pick an example, say you were involved with something like a consumer-grade digital camera (lots on units, lots of customers, scope for plenty of product differentiation). Given the volumes, you can’t talk to all the customers. Given the sales channel, you might not even know who most of the customers are. What can you do for something like this?

  8. Pingback: How does a PM gain insight? « On Product Management