Focused Product Management
“Great products are engineered when product managers truly understand the desired outcomes by actively listening to people, not users.”– Michael Fountain, Director of Product at Apptentive .”
Author: Andre Peters September 2020
The question we would like to ask companies and the product management fraternity is this: ''Do you give regular thought to your product and service offerings?'' Product portfolio reviews may only be done by companies on a quarterly, half-yearly, or even annual basis. And when a product review is done, is the company really honest enough in their review efforts? Or is the review just a half-baked exercise to make "management" happy?
Let's ask the question again for emphasis: ''Are we, as companies and product management professionals, honest in evaluating our products?'' Are we not a bit subjective at times? It may take a new competitor offering or a major decline in revenue to force us into really focusing on our existing portfolios.
This article will provide some views and suggestions as it relates to product management and reviewing existing products/product ranges.
The following aspects may be helpful in the product review process (provided as per our experience in the banking sector but applies to all sectors and industries):
Use data in your review and decision-making processes. Get as much data as you can e.g. balances, volumes, revenue, customer behavior, growth areas, redundancies, etc. Data should inform your analysis and thinking. If something is not selling or products are very similar, why have two of the same product? For example, the current trend in banking is to simplify. The client wants a simple account with simple pricing. Not multiple similar product options with complicated pricing and features. Data provides a good starting point for analysis and making decisions (hopefully the data is correct and useful, but this is a discussion for another day).
Look at current economic and market indicators. What factors are influencing your market and the economy at the moment? You may find certain market segments changing their behavior due to financial pressures. A new technology may be on the rise or changes in customer behavior and spend etc. Doing a simple SWOT (strengths, opportunities, threats, and weaknesses) analysis may be helpful. As companies and product managers, we must be in touch with our environment. Keep your eye on the economy and your market.
Focus on customer needs – we need to listen to our customers all the time. Hopefully, your company has mechanisms to engage with customers and to get their feedback. Some call it the ‘’Voice of the Customer’’. Companies need to listen to complaints. What does your customer need? What pain points are they experiencing? The customer will tell you what they require and want. You just need to listen and have the tools in place to ''hear'' them.
Competitive landscape – what are your competitors doing? You don’t operate in a vacuum. What is their proposition, pricing, approach to segmentation, products and value-added services? You may also find some non-traditional competitors playing in your space. We have seen the impact of fintech companies playing in the traditional banking space. We suggest companies do a regular comparison in terms of products and services. Keep your eye on the media and news. Competitors are happy to announce new products or services. You may need to focus on a need they are not servicing.
Competitive strategy – Mr. Michael Porter (well-known management guru), proposed four basic strategies in terms of competition. The same strategies may apply to product positioning. Are you a cost leader (services are provided cheaper via economy of scales), focus on cost, differentiate via product or product features, or focus differentiate by providing something unique? We are surprised at times that companies don’t use this tool more often. This links back to keeping an eye on your opponents.
Review your current product range – be honest. What is making money and what is bleeding cash? Refer back to bullet one about data. Do an analysis at least every few months. Are your customers happy with the product? We won’t go into detail here, but every product team should evaluate their product range often. It could be something as simple as opening a lid on a pill container. How many times have you struggled to get the lid (designed for safety) off a bottle? It's infuriating and simply bad product design. Bad design is everywhere from uncomfortable and dirty waiting areas in service-related businesses to unfriendly reception people ''assisting'' customers or not so user-friendly online applications.
Bridging the gap between ‘’current state’’ and what customers really want – How do we narrow this gap? Companies have to be proactive and sensitive to their markets. Again, the client is key in this process. Ask Kodak or fax machine producers what happened to their sales. The gap became wide and this happened quickly. The rapid change in technology is speeding up. Even market-leading smartphone companies are in a tough spot as to how to stay ahead and be innovative. Some cell phone companies, who were way behind the curve at some stage, are now making a comeback via better-priced products. Things change all the time.
Rapid product development – get to market faster. This can only be done via a quicker process of designing and launching new products and features. Easier said than done. We believe that the agile way of doing things has some advantages in terms of product development and implementation. It works to ensure faster delivery (not just for software but also for a range of other products). Business and IT work together, delivering workable software/product features in shorter iterations. Define your product properly e.g. product vision, features, pricing, processes, marketing and training materials required, sales support, etc. etc. The product development process can be defined and standardised (in a good sense). Ideas need to turn into reality. You need to focus on getting products out there ASAP.
Innovation and discipline - Christina Aguilera (famous pop singer), had something profound to say about focus: ‘’I try to stay focused on my creativity.’’ To us, this talks about being innovative and creative but also being disciplined. It takes effort to stay creative. Artists will tell you that being creative takes hard work. You have to decide to sit down and work on shaping your art and coming up with new ideas. It’s the same for product management. It needs focus and creativity.
Product people need to review their products often. They need to ask themselves: ''What’s going on around us?'' They need to make some tough choices at times. Do you know what the customer really wants? Can you be honest enough to respond by focusing your efforts and brave enough to cut loose the stuff that’s making you sink? Are you agile enough to get your new propositions to your customers?
We suggest re-evaluating your product portfolio as an ongoing process. Not just providing figures and management reports on a monthly basis, but real conversations with customers, sales, service, and marketing. We get disconnected too easily and sit in our ‘’ivory tower’’ whilst customers and the frontline is screaming at us from ‘’ down there’’. When last have you spoken to a client, used your own product, or spoken to your operations team?
Simple and effective product management starts with the customer, value to the business, refined by data, filtered through internal voices, topped up by creativity, and with delivery tracks laid down by agile product/feature releases.
We end off with another quote: ‘’Focus. Otherwise, you will find life becomes a blur’’. This is so true for the product world. We are always running around, attending meetings, analysing, talking, and doing what we do in a haste (blur). We forget to slow down, to talk to people and our customers, to keep it simple, and to just focus.