Sales, Marketing and Internal Empathy: Overlooked Product Management Skills

My favorite description of what a Product Manager is supposed to do is still the essay from Ben Horowitz. In my own experience building products, I sometimes find it helpful to go back and reread that to remind myself what it is I am trying to accomplish.

Here are a few lessons I’ve learned along the way in trying to get closer to that standard.

Market The Product Yourself (At First).

Its really easy to say something like “we are pursuing a freemium model because its the most scalable approach” and then hide behind your marketing team to actually figure out how to make that happen (if it can happen). Or “we are considering pricing the product like X and going to market with an enterprise sales team, a big content marketing push and large brand advertising effort” and building a product that your sales team tells you it needs. This would make it a lot easier to blame someone else if things don’t work out as planned, but it would definitely also make you a bad product manager (and wimp).

You should constantly be experimenting with the positioning and marketing of your product from the very beginning. That means pitching it as if you are selling it both internally and to customers all the time, writing about it as if you need to persuade someone to buy it and even potentially running some small digital advertising campaigns to gauge messaging performance and see whether you can even come close to the required acquisition KPIs in marketing channels you think might work (ie are you going to ask someone else to do an impossible task). This method will give you a lot of real time feedback and allow you to run hundreds of mini-tests to get to a good solution faster.

There is a really good book I read a little over a year ago called the Everything Store about Amazon and their requirement that Product Managers write their PRDs in the format of a press release. That is a great idea as it ensures a PM is constantly thinking about how a product is actually going to succeed in the real world…not just on a requirements document or in the eyes of (often biased) “stakeholders”.

Sell It Yourself (A Few Times at Least).

I realize in most companies there is a sales team (or marketing team for consumer products) who are responsible for the long term revenue goals of a product so I am not suggesting that a product manager spend all of their time doing sales. Its a common practice for product managers to sit in on sales calls and this is certainly a very important activity. However, I’d like to take it a step further and suggest that a product manager ACTUALLY attempt to sell their own product at least a few times. I understand this might make some people uncomfortable and that is kind of the point. There is something a lot more visceral about experiencing rejection or success from selling something than thinking about it as an abstraction. You will learn more truthfully whether the positioning and messaging you had dreamt up are valid and also whether your business model seems possible (since people tend to be a lot more honest about their feedback when you are actually asking them to buy something vs asking their opinions). More importantly though, you will develop empathy for your sales and marketing colleagues. Why should you ask them to repeatedly get rejected on a new product or feature you created in the spirit of “feedback” if you are not willing to do it yourself?

Internal Empathy.

There is a lot written about “customer empathy”, design thinking, etc and I am fully in agreement that having a customer centric view of your product is essential. This often comes at the expense of “internal empathy” when the two do not need to be mutually exclusive. That is having a concrete understanding and appreciation for how your marketing and sales (operations, finance, etc) teams are going to convert your product into a successful business outcome. In a lot of organizations, product and engineering are grouped under the same umbrella, so there is an inference that in a product organization there is an emphasis on technical understanding and an ability to collaborate well with engineers. These things are obviously important. I believe there is a huge amount to be gained both personally and for the success of your product by also spending some time trying to market and sell it yourself. This will give you much better insight into the challenges your non-engineering teammates face in order to make it successful.

Conclusion.

There were over 1 million parts on the Apollo Shuttle that took people to the moon in 1969. There was also someone who needed to convince congress to spend 4.5% of US GDP to make that happen. Some parts of a process may not be as appealing to you personally, but appreciating their importance will dramatically improve the odds of your team achieving its common goal.

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