Five Common Product Manager Mistakes

When I started writing this article I had to write the first one first and then walk away. It took me a while to come up with the other four because I get so wrapped up in the number one mistake that I am blinded to all others. I think the reason why the number one mistake bothers me so much is because I do it myself. I can't believe that I have been doing this technology marketing stuff for over 20 years, I have trained lots of product managers, and I still make the same stupid mistake! I feel like I should be writing the number one mistake for this article over and over again until I execute it flawlessly.

Also, when I started writing this article, I was writing it from the CEO perspective, but then I thought it was important to think about it from the perspective of the VP of Marketing, VP of Engineering, and Director of Product Marketing as well. The Product Manager works with the entire organization and, in order to be most effective, the product manager must be well respected throughout the entire company.

1. Losing Sight of the Customer

In the technology industry, we live in a world of cool products and even cooler product ideas.  Our products win awards, analysts rave about them, the press writes about them, and we feel like we have been part of creating the "next big thing".  Then we turn them over to the sales people and wonder why they can't sell the "next big thing".  It is easy to blame the sales people, but the most common reason that the product does not "jump off the shelves" is that the product was created to wow people -- instead of solving a problem.

I have spent a lot of time in Chapter 2 of my book discussing ways to get closer to the customer.  But just talking to customers is not enough.  You must think like your customers.  Figure out your target market -- the actual individual that will buy your product.  Write down their title, their biggest frustrations, their goals, and put them on your wall.  If you don't know these things, then you haven't talked to enough people in your target market (both current customers and prospects).  Only when you really understand their concerns and issues can you create features and products that speak to them.  The other person you need to understand is their customer.  You may think that this is necessary only in multi-level distribution, but that is not the case.  An IT organization serves the needs of a company.  Ask the IT manager about their customer.  Ask them what their biggest issue is with their customer.  Ask them how they can service their customer better.  Ask these questions, but don't forget who is your customer.  The person buying your product is your customer.

My favorite story about my own personal failing to listen to my own advice on one happened to me on Halloween this year.  My neighborhood always has lots of trick-or-treaters wandering down the street, but I never seem to get many of them.  Every year I put out lights, ghosts, and pumpkins to try to draw them in, but every year I spend the next month eating lots and lots of leftover candy.  This year I was out with my kids when I was excited to see a couple children walking away from my house.  They said, "Hey, there is a house down there!  You need to go through that gate on the side."

That is when it hit me.  I live in an old neighborhood with homes scattered all over the hills.  You can't actually see my house from the street because of all the trees in front.  The kids probably thought that all my lights were part of the neighbor's house which is much closer to the street.  I can't believe that I have been living here for four years and never bothered to ask the kids why they didn't come to my house!  I spend my work days trying to make sure I am always aware of the customer and the customer's issues, but I seemed to have forgetten that focus on my time off.

2. Staying Where You are Comfortable

Product managers walk into the role from many different paths. Many come from engineering and have great technical backgrounds. I would most often recruit product managers out of the field, from either systems engineering or sales engineering. Some come from marketing communications and a handful of others come out of sales. But the most common mistake for all of them is sticking to what they know well. The engineers spend more time with engineering and less with customers. The sales engineers spend more time with sales and customers and less time working with engineering to solve the problems.

It is important to understand your biases (and those of the people that have to work with you) so that you can work hard to overcome them. I was made aware of this once by an engineer that I had to work with who was brilliant, but difficult. He told me (after working with him for a while) that he usually ignored the marketing people and they would eventually go away. He couldn't understand why I didn't get the message. I did get the message but, just because he was unpleasant, I wasn't about to let him get in the way of my job. We actually got on quite well after the first miserable month. It made me realize that some engineers have this type of hazing that they do with new product managers. The product managers who are not comfortable working with engineers fail the test immediately. Understanding your comfort zone and pushing beyond that is important to be successful in the product marketing role.

There are so many facets to the product marketing job and it is a challenge every day to juggle them. It is easy to spend time where you are more comfortable, but it will hurt the product, the company, and your career in the long run.

3. Losing Sight of the Big Picture

As mentioned above, a product manager is always buried in work. Every day there are fires to put out, the the newest competitive announcement, or the sales person that just lost a deal because of a feature missing from the product. This constant barrage of incoming crisis makes it very difficult to take a few minutes to look at the bigger picture. Yet all of this incoming activity is more easy to prioritize when you understand the bigger picture.

The following are some simple things that you can do to help you keep the big picture in mind:

  • If you don't know what the short and long term goals are for the company, ask.

  • If you don't know what your boss's short and long term goals are, ask.

  • Have a disciplined product planning process.  Having regularly scheduled product planning meetings forces you to think strategically at regular intervals.  (For more info on this please see the product planning chapter of my book on this site.)

4. Forgetting to Take the Time to Learn

Forgetting to take the time to learn is probably not problem for anyone who is taking the time to read this site.  If you are reading this, you obviously understand how important it is to learn new or different methods of marketing.  It is always more fun to learn and grow with your job, even if you have been at it for many years.  Be sure to take the time to sign up for seminars and network with friends to find out what is working and what isn't and how to improve your processes and results.

5. Not Appearing to be "On Top" of Everything

"Not appearing to be on top of everything" is listed here as number five, but in terms of importance to your career, it should be number one.  Product marketing people are most effective when they are respected by the rest of the organization. That respect is earned through hard work, but is also a perception. It drives me crazy when I ask someone the status of something and they say, "I completely forgot about that."  I know that product marketing is a really hard job and there is a lot to juggle, but as a manager, I need to feel like you are capable of tracking and managing your tasks. It is fine to tell me that, "I have that on my list, but it is prioritized below these five other things."  As a manager, that is a response that I can deal with and change the priorities if necessary.

The best way to appear on top of everything is to send out a weekly list of projects and relative priorities. This can be a simple Excel spreadsheet distributed via email or something more elaborate if you are using tracking software. The point is to let everyone know that you are being proactive about tracking projects. Additionally, if you keep this list up-to-date, moving off projects onto another spreadsheet as they are completed, you will also have a nice summary of your accomplishments the next time your review comes around.