Category Archives: Customers

Moving to own domain

This blog has been a useful link to my current and past work and industry experiences. In future, I will be posting at the site productmanager.dhirenjani.com (Yes, I’m Dhiren Jani).

You can check out new posts there.

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Fashionable Feature Sets

In technology product management, it is easy to get tempted by the fashionable trends of the season. Today it is features related to “Big Data“, earlier it was “Web 2.0 Features or SLATES” and the latest trend is to add mobility features and access to your offering.

When such buzzwords become commonplace, the products promoted using this terminology during sales pitches or marketing events also gain credibility in the eyes of the layman. However, the product manager should not be swayed by these fashionable feature sets. It is always the buying customer and his product reviews that are the key to gaining marketshare and increasing revenue.

Fundamentally, nothing has really changed. As a product manager, your vision and roadmap will contain features that are useful to woo customers to try, buy and keep using your products. And these features are either going to give you a competitive edge, retain existing customers, or attract users who are not yet using the products.

If these reasons attracted you to these fashionable features(and of course, the side benefits of tempting developers to build them out and of influencing senior management on thought leadership), then consider this blog post, that talks about the diffusion of innovation, and product adoption. I will leave you to understand the implications, but the key takeaways from this include:

a) Adoption rates of most consumer technologies in this century follow a similar curve

b) There is a real adoption chasm that exists in most product categories, beware that your product does not fall in that chasm

b) Innovative features take time to identify, design and develop

FashionSo how can you cater to the fashion sense of the day, and still follow the established strategic principles? That requires building consensus, and having a market research driven approach to identifying the best features for the various consumer or user segments.

In fact, gaining consensus on the product roadmap is a vital activity, and it takes a lot of time. I will address this in a future post.

Does Your Product Line Need A Blog And A Facebook Presence?

Google has a lot of official blogs. Here is the main one, and at the bottom, you can see links to several other blogs, including corporate, product and developer blogs. (The complete directory is available here. So does your company follow this trend and also host several blogs? And what value do these blogs actually provide.

I read this blog post on a large software company’s product line blog. That line is a specialized category with limited consumer interest. They wrote that in 2012, they got 50k page views and over 10k visitors.[ Note: this is a top level number and does not delve into much detail on accuracy, visitor segmentation etc] And this is a well maintained blog, with articles on product usage, updates from engineers and product managers and information on industry events.

Now compare that number with those for a product management blog, such as the one called Mind the Product. I am sure that a blog like this, that comes on top of google search results for “product management blogs” must get at least 5k page views a month. I know it’s like comparing apples and oranges, however, the benefits of any blog must be analyzed independently of other factors.

So here’s my point. For a niche product, it may not be cost-effective to only maintain a blog. Instead, an added social presence, such as on Facebook might be a far better mechanism. And incidentally, very few consumer tech. products have a presence on Facebook. So getting there might be a leader’s move.

Any challenges to shutting down your blog and starting a Facebook presence? A few come to mind.

1) Accessibility: If your audience is business users, they may not be comfortable surfing Facebook from work. And from home, they may use personal accounts, which may hide true audience demographics.

2) Search: Facebook search is good, but for general search terms, Google search is better

3) Privacy: You may not want to publish information about your followers, as your competitors could also be lurking there

In the end, your leadership team’s vision will decide how you approach social media, and how your product gets the benefits. But if you want to make a case for a Facebook presence for your products, do think about the above factors.

Book Review: The Strategy and Tactics of Pricing

Strategy and Tactics of PricingThe Strategy and Tactics of Pricing is actually a management textbook, typically prescribed as a required reading or a reference text in a course on pricing for undergraduates or MBA students. However, the book is very well written and is a must read for all product managers. The book has also received glowing reviews on Amazon.com.

If you wish to understand how pricing is done, or take part in pricing discussions with senior leadership, or price a new product or service, read this book.

About the Book

The book talks about the 3 core principles of strategic pricing, that strategic pricing should be value-based, proactive (where you anticipate large deals, competition response and develop models to account for those) and profit driven (focus on your targeted profit). It then shows the limitations of cost-plus pricing, customer driven pricing and pricing for market share. A Wikipedia article has a detailed description of the different pricing strategies.

The other chapters in the book cover

  • value creation and what it means to the firm and its customers
  • pricing structures
  • pricing communication with stakeholders
  • pricing policy and pricing levels
  • pricing over the product life-cycle
  • driving implementation of the pricing strategy
  • understanding costs and basic financial analysis
  • competition and pricing sensitivity analysis
  • Following the ethics and laws on pricing

Overall, a complete reading of this book 2 or 3 times should make one confident to take up a pricing task and drive a pricing strategy. This information is of great value to a product manager in any role (on-site or offshore) for all types of product sales models (subscription, licensing, freemium, cost+maintenance and others). The challenge will be to keep these learnings since pricing decisions come around very rarely, and are normally taken up by the Director/VP of product management.

For Product Managers

Product pricing is a very important dimension of product management. And it is a sensitive and critical issue in most organizations. In many cases, pricing approval is actually done by the CEO or Executive Management. In the pricing exercise, there are multiple stakeholders and everyone wants the “best price”. However, the definition of best price is different for all. Sales wants the upfront price lower than competitors, finance wants to look at the cost/price variance and the best ROI possible and marketing wants to dictate the price. So it is the product manager’s role to build a valid structure for pricing the product/service or the deal and then come up with a logical product price (which could actually be higher than the competition’s price) for different situations.

This book explains pricing very well, and you should definitely keep a copy on your desk as a reference. It is as useful for pricing SAAS products as it is for pricing consumer or enterprise packaged products.

Note: In case you have a traditional software engineering->product management career path, you may want to pick up a few courses on corporate finance and management accounting. They will help you a lot if you are ever involved in pricing decisions. A part time MBA could also be useful.

7 Tips for Fresh MBAs working as Offshore Product Managers

[Caution: long post]

Today, most business schools prefer candidates with some work experience, which is also useful during lateral placements. Hence you see an increasing number of candidates with exposure to IT services or software engineering joining these schools and completing their MBA. Post-MBA, it is inevitable that some of them will head towards product management during campus placements or shortly afterwards. This post is about the 7 things to focus on in your first year on the job, apart from working on PRDs or MRDs.

1. Build a rapport with program managers

In most offshore R&D centers, program managers play a key role in organizing projects, resources and schedules. Hence they know the resource costs and availability for any ongoing or upcoming project. And since engineering dominates decision-making in ODCs (offshore development centers), the program managers help to balance the engineering dominance.

2. Get customer exposure on a sales call

An enterprise sale is a complex process, involving dozens of people from different departments, and it typically has a long completion cycle. You must gain a first hand exposure to how this works, as this is the main source of revenue for the firm and for your product line. However, it can be difficult to gain a sales person’s attention, as he is always looking outwards for opportunities. As an incentive to sales folks to get them to talk to you, arrange a product demo or a feature presentation. If the demo is interesting enough, they will make sure that you get in front of the customer.

3. Gain the trust of engineering and service delivery managers

I have written previously about key stakeholders for offshore product managers. If you cannot get these people to trust you, you will never be able to drive product decisions, even with your supervisor’s help. And you cannot keep going to him all the time. One good technique to gain the engineering trust is the show them that you can deliver on the product requirements and are not simply there because of your MBA. Essentially, you need to prove yourself with every engineering resource, right from the VP to the intern.

4. Train yourself

If you are just coming out of b-school, with a few years of pre-MBA IT experience, you have NO relevant skills whatsoever. The people in the ODC do not care that you can prepare kick-ass powerpoint. Neither are they interested in the font, color or direction of arrows in you block diagram. You must focus on gaining survival skills, which today include, UI design using HTML, CSS and Javascript, UML and MS Visio usage, basic analytics, and programming skills in at least C++, Java or PHP. There is a lot more to gaining skills in multiple dimensions, and I will cover this in a future post.

Do not bother to go for a formal product management training yet. Without relevant experience, it will have very little value and you will forget most of it very soon.

5. Prepare for a change to your role/product within 12 months

In today’s connected, global economy, it is almost guaranteed that your first role will last no more than 12 months. The change could be due to external forces or internal restructuring (ODCs are very prone to this), but it will definitely happen. In the worst case, you might feel stagnating in your role, and you will yourself ask for or start looking out for a change. The best way to survive this is to shine in front of senior management, build a rapport with the US teams and network with HR and other support staff.

6. Connect with Solution Sales, Analytics, Customer Service Teams

This is probably the most important task that you can perform outside of self-training. To understand how the product is built, you need to sit with engineering teams. To understand how the product is sold, you need to work with sales teams. And if you really want to understand how the product is used, you need to work with solution sales, analytics and operations and customer service teams, who cover all real use cases that the product was designed for. And remember, you need to proactively seek them out and learn from them. As a fresher, it is expected that you will be learning all the time.

7. Network outside the firm

There are a lot of opportunities for networking in Bangalore, Hyderabad and all the other major tech. centers in India. You must go to these get-togethers (a few of them are listed in the resources section of the blog). It can be a lonely job, working as a product manager, with no outbound teams near you. Connecting with other people in similar situations is a good way to understand the challenges of an offshore product management role, and the different ways in which people are coping.

Summing Up

A product management role, even offshore, can be incredibly rewarding, but only if you take care of your first few years on the job. It is not for everyone, and you should make sure that you are still interested in it at the end of your first year. Else, as an MBA, it will be easy to find something else.

Book Review: High-Tech High-Touch Customer Service

Hightech HightouchHigh-Tech, High-Touch Customer Service is a book by Micah Solomon, a writer and business strategist. He is well-known in the field of customer service, particularly on B2C customer service. However, the book is about customer service in general and is of some relevance to people in the B2B world too. If you are the product manager of a consumer facing product, or are looking to understand how customer service impacts your product sales, its lifecycle or its quality, you should read this book. Additionally, you could also recommend your HR team to buy this book for the customer service team in your organization.

About the Book

The book is divided into 3 parts, part 1 covers Timeliness and Timelessness in customer service, with several examples. Part 2 is called High-Tech, High-Touch Anticipatory Customer Service and it talks about your company culture, its customer service, the importance of autonomy in the service team and the ability to anticipate customer needs and it has several examples on these themes. Part 3 talks about customer self-service, social media and the principles to assimilate with these new paradigms.

There are 13 chapters in the book, and you can read through it in a couple of days, or browse through it a few chapters at a time. It also has examples of customer service within many organizations, such as Zappos, SouthWest Airlines and Apple.

For Product Managers

Fundamentally, there is no ground breaking insight in the book, but there are a lot of common sense principles discussed here, which we occasionally lose sight of, in the rush to design the product and get it out of the door. Today, a significant part of enterprise product management activities is about defining incremental releases and tracking the existing deployments and the client satisfaction with the product. This is actually as important as defining features and benefits for the new release, to sell to new clients and accounts.

Additionally, in the B2B world, a very important metric for retaining and growing accounts is CSAT or Customer Satisfaction. This is usually a numeric value, which determines the success of failure of your product in a vertical, geography or customer segment. To ensure customer satisfaction purely from brilliant features of a product is a really tough ask, and so customer support also has a very important role to play in improving and maintaining CSAT.

Of course, as a consumer market product manager, you must remain on top of all customer issues surfacing after the product release. And CSAT is also measured reliably if you are closely tracking the social media outlets.

This book gives several ideas for bringing together the strategy to retain existing users and gain more users. It would be a great exercise for any product manager to identify how they can integrate these ideas into product features and follow through with customer support trainings for the same.

Note: In case you manage a high technology product, I strongly recommend that you spend time with your customer service team. Understanding the product deployments and troubleshooting problem scenarios is a great exercise to gain insights into product usage.

Customer Interviews: Collecting Product Feedback

So you are a product manager, and you wish to understand what customers do with your products. And you have management approval to do customer interviews to get product feedback. What comes next?

A. Identify your research hypothesis
Will you be doing a customer survey or in-depth interviews? Will you perform statistical analysis on the data. Are you going to conduct these interviews every quarter or is this a one-off initiative.

B. Create a contact list
Do you have designations, email ids and phone numbers for these people? Which verticals, geographies and account sizes are you targeting?

C. Check with do-not-call lists, account teams
The account teams will give you strong indications on whether the account is positive, neutral or negative. You must stay in contact with them before any interviews. In fact, it might be a good idea to invite them for the call/meeting.

D. Prepare a questionnaire
What features of the product do you want feedback on, what are the key product dimensions you want analyzed, what are the customers pain points, what is their perception of the market and so on. A formal questionnaire to follow-up with after your meeting will help both parties to stay focused.

E. Do the interview
Set up a suitable time and place, and collect the customer feedback. Make sure that you take extensive notes, or preferably record the interview for transcribing later. Ensure that the customer is aware that you are recording them.

F. Build a data collection and analysis plan
What data points are you collecting, how are the results presented (Powerpoint, Excel charts etc). How do you plan to keep the data confidential?

G. Share the results with everyone
It is important that you share your insights with the engineering, marketing and senior management teams. They are going to learn a lot about the product, and your customer interaction skills, from this initiative.

Bottom Line

Feedback forms by themselves are of little use in really understanding customers’ pain points. If you want to focus on customer development, or build awesome use cases or user stories, the key is to understand your customers. A good market research hypothesis, and your preparation for customer interviews, are vital to complete this initiative successfully.