Monday, January 28, 2013

Product Management: No is never an acceptable answer

There are two answers that you need to master as a product manager.  'Yes we can' and 'yes we would like to.'  Everything else is not an acceptable answer.

Product manager is an odd position.  It's about the only position where you are expected to know enough technical details to interface with engineering about what the product should do yet know enough about sales to help deals get closed.

It looks like many product managers, including myself, have challenges in doing the second part, that is, getting better at selling (I am guessing it's true from looking at a Quora article like this).  That has been especially true for me, a guy with engineering background wearing a product manager hat.

One of the hardest thing to master is to never say no to a customer.  Product managers should never say no to a customer at any time.  Perhaps this is one of the trickiest things to do in a customer call.  During sales cycle, a product manager is often invited to critical deals to add credibility to the product vision and story.  Often the discussion drifts off to feature requests, landmines that competitors have planted or some integration requirements specific to their environment.

Do the right thing.  Never start your answer with no.

There are simple reasons why.

First, it is not your job to say it.  This is especially true during sales cycle.  And guess what?  Your existing customers are your best future prospects (remember future upselling opportunities to existing customers).  When talking to customers, you are always in selling mode.  When selling, it's not the product manager who is leading the show.  It's the sales guy.  Product manager is a person who supports sales and sales engineer to close the deal.  So it's not your job to say no.  It is the sales guy's job to break that bad news.

Second, you are there to serve your customer.  When serving someone, you don't say it cannot be done.  You listen to what they have to say, come up with possible solutions, and try to solve the problem for your customer.  Remember that there are always other ways for the customer to solve the problem.  They can use competitor's product, they can choose to workaround it as they have been, or they can choose to ignore it altogether.  All of these are outcomes that you don't want.  If you repeat this often, it means your company is going out of business.  Chances are that you will be let go long before that actually happens.

So what should be your answer?

State the truth.  Explain to the customer that you are doing all you can to help them be successful, but not all product roadmap decisions, pricing information, and whatever else customer asks of you are under your control.  Tell the customer that you will take the request to internal decision makers to make the call.  Ask the customer for time to come back with an answer.  When given time, always be prompt in following up with the answer.  Ultimately it's just as much about people as about the product itself that determines the customer experience.  Do everything in your power to win the customer's trust.  The next call with the customer will go lot easier for you.

If you must say no to unreasonable request, ask for time to come back with the answer.  Call the sales guy, explain the difficulties that you have, and ask the sales guy to communicate that to the customer.  If you cannot convince the sales guy to pass on the opportunity with the customer, you should continue to serve the customer and find out a way to help.

Not saying no does not mean saying yes without thinking through.
Saying too many 'yes i will' can get you into just as much trouble.

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