Years ago, I was in the San Francisco airport watching another traveler shuffle a handful of index cards. I instantly recognized the cards as user stories. (In those days, before everything was stored in JIRA, we used index cards—a technique I still recommend to new product managers.)
I asked him if he was prioritizing the cards and he said yes. I asked on what he was basing his prioritization. His response? “Well,” he said, “I just think this one is more important than this one.”
The inherent problem with this method is that “I just think” isn’t going to stand up to any level of scrutiny. He won’t be able to defend the story or its priority to an executive, sales rep or the dev team. This problem is at the heart of one of Pragmatic Institute’s core philosophies: “Your opinion, although interesting, is irrelevant.”
The primary role of product managers is to develop products that respond to customers’ needs, wants and challenges. But how can you represent customers if you don’t spend time with them?
In the 2019 Pragmatic Institute Annual Product Management and Product Marketing Survey, respondents reported spending only 27% of their time on strategic activities—which includes spending time with customers to understand their problems. Respondents said they believe they should be spending 53% of their time on these strategic activities, yet spending time with customers isn’t even among the top activities in a typical product professional’s week.
Where are product managers spending their time? Supporting development. Supporting marketing. Supporting sales. A little bit of business and technical planning. And there’s a lot of administrivia. The respondents to this year’s survey said that, on a monthly basis, they spend 40 hours attending meetings and another 25 hours managing emails—not to mention their work on sales demos and simply answering phone calls.
Effective product professionals know that the most important thing to have is first-hand experience with customers—a visceral knowledge of personas and problems. But how do you achieve this when you’re buried in other work?
Two Steps in the Right Direction
There are two things product managers can do to refocus on markets and problems. First, have a discussion with your leadership team about the true role of product management. This means deciding whether the company prizes having someone who acts as the company’s knowledge base on products themselves, or someone who is an expert on markets and their respective problems.
If your company doesn’t have a good understanding of the potential of your role, this is your opportunity to manage up and highlight what is versus what could be, given the right focus. Be prepared to talk about how this role can positively affect top- and bottom-line performance. For instance, will a product that better aligns with your customers result in an increase in customer satisfaction and/or sales? If so, you may be able to illustrate the link between time spent with customers and an improved customer experience and higher revenue.
Second, product managers simply need to block time on their schedules—and keep it sacred—to spend time with the market. Try blocking one day a week for product management. Use this day to dive into the core job you were hired to do: spend time on the phone, in web conferences or traveling to customers to understand what’s happening in the market, the domain and with the product.
And don’t limit this time to your customers. Remember to spend time with noncustomers as well as the competition’s customers. The most powerful and effective way product professionals can reach the competition’s customers is by engaging in win/loss interviews and analysis. By talking about why a noncustomer chose a particular product or provider, product managers get an inside view on things like the buyer’s journey, functionality and market reputation. These are insights that sales teams rarely get from customers (plus it isn’t their job to get these insights). Sales teams focus on people who are shopping and buying. It’s product’s job to understand those potential clients who aren’t shopping but should be.
Take the time to step away from tactical activities and focus on your strategic role: being the expert in the market. Because a product manager who doesn’t know their market isn’t a product manager at all.