Aug 17, 2021 5 min read

Merchandizing Product Management

Merchandizing Product Management

It’s pretty easy to tell if Sales is hitting its goals.  (“Are we on track to hit this quarter’s revenue?”)   Slightly tougher for Marketing (top of funnel metrics or qualified leads).  HR tracks hiring, employee churn and internal sentiment.  Engineering tends toward semi-vanity productivity metric (releases, velocity or bug counts).

It’s much harder to measure if a product management (PM) team is doing a good job. With lots of responsibility but no authority, we often struggle to connect specific actions with specific revenue outcomes or partnerships or increased customer satisfaction.  And we’re trained to share credit/success as widely as possible.  Good product managers are always applauding teams and coworkers (“they” and “we”) rather than self-promoting (“I”).

But I observe that product management work is much easier when the product team is well-respected.  When stakeholders and internal partners start from the assumption that we’re smart and hard-working and good at product stuff (even if they’re not sure exactly what we do).  So an under-appreciated skill of product leaders is merchandizing good product work and good outcomes from our teams.  Subtly but relentlessly sharing wins and learnings and improved metrics and customer insights and clear priorities with internal audiences.  Positioning product management as a strategic spark for the company.

In my coaching sessions with product leaders, I emphasize that we (directors, VPs, CPOs) need to merchandize the good work of product managers and extended teams.  Otherwise the company simply won’t hear about the wins, and we’ll only get summoned when something goes seriously wrong.

How About Some Examples?

[1]  Product managers are continuously learning from customers and validating problems/solutions. And should be including designers/developers directly in these conversations.  From the outside, though, it can be hard to see how this creates value.  Why it’s essential for building successful products.  Why execs don’t always know what customers want.  So as product leaders we might:

  • Have our product managers widely share one-line insights from every user/customer interview, plus links to full transcripts or artifacts. That reminds the rest of the company that we actually talk with end users (a lot), and regularly learn interesting things.
  • Include the number of discovery interviews and a few choice insights in weekly/monthly executive status reports. Alongside that, a tally of sales calls we joined – since execs may not notice us helping account teams bring in the big bucks.
  • Make sure product managers share notes and take-aways from specific customers with the appropriate sales team. Sales may worry that we’re going to screw up customer relationships, so this reduces tension and demonstrates that product discovery is entirely different from “closing.”

[2]  We’re shipping lots of new capabilities/features. But it’s easier for folks on the go-to-market side to remember the one feature that we didn’t ship, or a recent customer request that we buried at the bottom of the backlog, or forget an agreement to actively decommit a promised item to support a larger opportunity.  Recency bias is universal.  So we can get a reputation as naysayers, unresponsive, disinterested: where good ideas go to die.  As product leaders, we can preempt that by:

  • Sending out a brief monthly all-company recap of the top 4-8 recent improvements or new features, why they matter to customers, uptake or usage stats, and names of major customers using the new stuff. Over time, this subliminally answers the criticism that “product and engineering and design don’t deliver much.”
  • Organize and record demos of new features to share company-wide. These come in short (2 minute) and long (15+ minute) versions, since most employees just want a brief look at what’s cool — but groups like Customer Support and Post-Sale Implementation need more detailed info.
    I like my product manager to do 30 seconds of introduction/framing (“this is for narrow user segment X, has very clear benefit Y in situation Z, and is included in our Silver/Gold packages…”) then have a developer or designer show off their work.  That visually reinforces teamwork, positions product management as understanding who/why, and gives our “makers” some direct appreciation for their talent.

[3]  Most of our employees can’t remember what’s on the roadmap.  It’s not their fault: they are paid to worry about other things.  We (product managers) look at our roadmap every hour, so we wrongly assume that everyone else pays similar attention.  We share links to our roadmapping tools, even though almost no one ever clicks through.  (Or they visit our detailed engineering roadmaps once, find meaningless code names and version numbers, and never return.) So merchandizing roadmaps for the rest of the company means cutting these down to something usefully simple:

  • Widely distribute a brief weekly text recap of the top 3-5 features or projects or releases, why they matter to customers, and dates or impact. If nothing has changed since last week, send the identical thing out again – most recipients have already forgotten or never read last week’s version.  Rather than be frustrated, repeat for emphasis.
  • When asked for something not on the roadmap, start by recapping what’s already underway.  Most new requests are obviously less important that what we’ve already prioritized.  So rather than saying “that’s not important” or “what a stupid idea,” we can try “I can see how that’s important, but it seems less urgent than CriticalProject#1 or CyberMonday-Scalability#2 or Keep-CEO-OutofJail-RegulatoryFix#3.”
  • If we’re sunsetting old products or versions, share migration stats and why EOL frees up our effort/attention

[4] It should be second nature for each of us to identify people in other departments who do good work, and then to thank them.  Product managers depend on enthusiastic participation throughout the company to GSD.  But without some regular process or reminder, we forget to do it.  So astute product leaders turn that into a habit:

  • Every few weeks, ask the product team for names of individuals or groups that have recently been especially insightful or helpful.  Then the leader sends a short thank-you note to that person’s/team’s manager.  (What a thrill to have your manager tell you that another department thinks you’re a star!)  This creates a virtuous circle where cross-functional collaboration is appreciated, rewarded, and helps deserving folks get promoted.
  • Leaders and PMs actively listen for employees who express interest in product management.  We find small opportunities for them to shadow PMs, silently observe user interviews, sit in on strategy sessions, talk through migration plans, etc.  No promises – and most candidates quickly decide that our job isn’t very sexy – but this reinforces the idea that product management is a valid career aspiration.

Merchandizing shows the company that we’re doing important things and constantly refreshing our market knowledge.  The details are less important than repeatedly making the meta-point: product managers have the pulse of customers and markets, which we apply to strategies and priorities and product definitions.  It’s less about opinions, and more about wrapping strategies around constantly shifting market situations.

By the way, most non-product/non-development folks are not interested in how we do product management.  They don’t care about agile/scrum, prioritization matrices, trade-offs, canvases, user stories, backlog management, or the 3000 reasons why they can’t have the thing they’ve just decided they want. (In fact, most stakeholders just want a form that instantly adds their item to the roadmap.)  So our merchandizing goal isn’t to educate the rest of the company on the nuances of product thinking or development lifecycles.  Instead, we’re trying to emphasize the value we deliver.  (“Here’s what good things happen when product management is humming.”)  We want to merchandize interesting, tangible, business-meaningful outcomes or learnings or shared successes.  To promote the benefits of strong product management, not the mechanics.

Product Byte

To succeed, product managers need the company on our side.  So product leaders need to create the shared perception that development/design/product is a primary source of strategic advantage.  To merchandize the excellent work that may not be obvious.  To share the applause that we naturally deflect elsewhere.

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