Product Management

The strategic role of the Marketing Product Manager can vary from one company to another; however one common thread remains consistent - commercial product releases almost always fall under the domain of Product Management.

Fundamental to the strategic nature of a product's success is the product roadmap, defined during interim releases by product marketing requirements. Whether referred to as Marketing Essential Characteristics (MEC) or Product Requirements Definition (PRD), the Product Manager communicates effectively throughout the organization (cross functional team members, sales and management) to explain product costs and objectives, obtain buy in, and ultimately, produce signed-off requirements.

Thus the fundamental Product Manager role is to ensure that the Product release is accurately defined to include at a minimum:

•  Corrective actions mandated by Regulatory
•  Field errors stated by Technical Support & deemed a priority by QA
•  Competitive needs identified by Sales or Marketing
•  Strategic needs stated on the product roadmap or identified by management
•  Upgrades needed by business partners
•  Upgrades needed to support system upgrades

At a more strategic level, the success of the product release depends not on the definition of the requirements, sometimes being pulled together in earnest to satisfy a customer need or competitive opportunity, but a more robust SWOT analysis. The importance of the SWOT analysis is well recognized.  The analytical process of stating and assessing the internal strengths and weaknesses of a product line due to business capabilities, staffing, budget, and the immediate competitive situation, ensures that product goals are realistic, in-line with company objectives and closely tied to the product stage (emerging, growth, cash cow, or obsolescence). 

Similarly, external opportunities and threats must be evaluated to ensure that technological innovations, economic concerns, regulatory needs, and competitive threats are being fully considered. Product branding and segmentation, and resource planning dictates that a product cannot be all things to all people, so it must be effectively planned.  The assembly of the SWOT, as well as the Product Roadmap usually falls within the responsibility of Product Marketing.

While the Brand Manager is digesting and responding to product sales indicators, product display, ad response rates, inventory and profit margins, the Product Manager is working diligently to commercialize the next product release.  With the MECs or PRDs in place, focus is shifted towards engineering requirements at the unit, system and integration level.  Representing the voice of the customer during this stage to ensure accurate feature translation is the Product's Manager's mainstay.  This focus is not a one-time effort, but a continuous process as issues surface repeatedly during cross-functional team meetings or one-on-ones.  Clarifying expectations is critical at every phase and expected by all departments:

•  Unit & system test plans need to check output, usability & service requirements
•  Installation procedures need to accommodate customer upgrade paths
•  User Guides need to incorporate usability and feature copyright
•  Validation addresses the entire product if not proven otherwise by a trace matrix
•  Training materials need to convey installation, features and constraints
•  Customer Service needs to prepare FAQs (frequently asked questions)
•  Marketing Communications needs to position features in ad-copy across media
•  Marketing needs to disseminate product collateral
•  Product Specifications need to manage new and past revisions levels
•  Inventory needs to be updated with new product and SKUs.

These product deliverables should be formally stated in a Commercial Launch Plan. The Commercial Launch Plan further details the timing of release, target audience, installation responsibility and in general, resources required throughout the organization to make it all happen. Managers in less than successful launches find themselves unexpectedly in War-rooms after product launch with unenviable position of managing distraught customers. To help mitigate any problems before they occur, the robust product team, often lead by Quality Assurance, has already evaluated potential problems and appropriate corrective items, in a Risk Analysis.

In a perfect world, product development would be a straight forward process, but we know that this is simply not the case; unexpected technical dilemmas, engineering limitations, last minute customer needs, budget constraints and simple oversights, all result in product deviations and reengineering.  Once this major milestone is complete however and signed off by engineering and cross-functional representation, internal testing of the product, or Alpha testing, can begin.  With internal subject matter experts on hand - Technical Sales Engineers, Customer Care Staff, Sales Trainers or others - unexpected issues with installation, functionality and performance can be surfaced.

Ownership of the next major milestone, Beta-testing is a critical Product Management endeavor. Conducted offsite by well selected customers, often key stakeholders in their own right, Beta-testing sets out to accomplish objectives formally stated in the Beta Test Plan.  Ensuring that the product is properly shipped, easily installed, fully understood, well integrated and technically fit are fundamental aspects of the Beta Test that require key involvement across the organization. 

A Beta test is most successful if treated like an actual commercial launch and therefore departments ranging from training to shipping to customer support to sales, should be integrally evolved. With a comprehensive Alpha test under the company’s belt, this is a real opportunity for the organization to shine by taking full advantage of more strategic endeavors. Conducting value-in-use studies and obtaining customer testimonials during this stage for instance, will greatly advance Marketing Communications and Sales objectives for the launch.

Now in the event that the worst occurs and critical problems surface during the Beta Test, then it is up to the Product Manager to evaluate possible launch alternatives. Assessing these alternatives requires measuring the severity of the problems (customer safety issues, core operational problems, etc.) against marketing and sales needs (competitive threats, revenue opportunities, etc.), and engineering constraints (often directly tied to the development process - waterfall, iterative, rapid development, etc.). Besides for holding back a product launch, the Product Manager can suggest other suitable alternatives including: placing warnings in labeling, identifying suitable work-arounds, and rescheduling low-priority corrective items for later releases. 

To quote a well-regarded Product Marketing expert, new product releases can sometimes benefit from being, “shipped fast, shipped crappy”. The reasons why this is true are numerous, however three that immediately standout are: (1) a leadership position is established by capturing market share before competitors, (2) a winning company morale leads to increasingly better product launches (a body in motion tends to stay in motion), and (3) avoiding feature creep is critical to risking ever increasing product delays. Once the product is shipped however, providing it does not possess high-severity errors, it is the organizations responsibility to itself and its customer base to ramp up activities and put corrective actions on the fast track.

It is worth mentioning that in some cases the role of a Product Manager can be similar to that of a Project Manager or even Program Manager. Disseminating objectives, managing expectations, surfacing needs, motivating and rewarding teams, and effectively communicating status are certainly common objectives that all positions share.

The strategic nature of Product Manager differs across companies. Depending on product release demands and employee bandwidth, it makes sense to limit the Product Managers strategic input based upon level. A Product Manager for instance may be closely focused upon commercial releases and roadmap, while a Director focuses on prioritization, staffing and budget.

Success products do not occur by accident. Establishing best practices within the PMO is certainly one way to ensure product success. In accord with the continuous improvement model and the relentless pace of technology advancements, best practices are a living document that when properly maintained, are a key strategic advantage for the success of the entire organization!

by: Bruce Yeager

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