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Practical Tips for Product Managers

Sumit Gupta
July 2011

I am a self-trained product marketing person.   Here is some practical advice to help improve as a product manager.
  • Read: As much as you can.   There are really only two ways we learn -- by doing things ourselves or by reading about how others did them.   I usually look at lists such as the top business books recommended by BusinessWeek or other similar magazines or websites. Read broadly: marketing, business management, leadership, creativity, sales.
  • Write: As a product manager, this can take many forms: customer ready presentations, white papers, blogs, internal memos, strategy docuements.   Writing really helps collate your thoughts.   It forces you to concisely communicate your ideas.   It teaches you to position -- your products, yourself, your company. 
  • Learn to write: If you, like me, are an engineer who transitioned to marketing, then you probably suck at writing.  I recommend reading The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White.   The key thing in writing is presenting your ideas with as few words as possible.  As stated above, this forces you to think through and concisely present your ideas.
  • Learn Positioning: This is by far the toughest and most useful skill that a product manager possesses.   If you become good at positioning, you are golden.   Start by reading Al Ries books on Positioning.  Positioning means owning a place in people's mind.   You need to constantly position your product and its features and benefits to your customers.   In fact, you constantly position yourself in front of colleagues and friends.
  • Present:  Just like writing, presenting also helps you collage your thoughts and forces you to build a simple message to your customers / audience.    Make sure you learn how to make good slides.  There are several books on this -- many of them teach you to mimic Steve Jobs presentation style.   Just like writing, you want to learn to create slides with as many pictures and as few words as possible.
  • Meet customers:  There is nothing like knowing how good the presentations you created are than presenting them in front of customers.  Product managers often create sales presentations, but never deliver these to customers.  
    • Learn from your customers.   See how they respond to your presentations.  Find out what they value in your product.  Learn about their business problems.
  • Watch your customer: The best sales guys are the ones who watch the customer when you are presenting and not you.   Our natural instinct when someone presents is to look at the slides on the screen.   But if you want to see how your customer or audience is reacting to the messages on the slides, you should watch them.  
    • If someone looks like he or she is disagreeing with what is being presented, then interrupt the presentation and ask them "looks like you don't fully agree to this.  what do you think?".  
    • If someone nods their head in agreement, then say "looks like this feature really applies to your company".  This will force them to tell you what value the feature / point you are making brings to them.
  • Listen before talking: Whenever you go into a customer meeting, always start by asking your customer questions.   For example, if a customer asks for a presentation on your roadmap, then start by asking "what are your plans on software or hardware procurement over the next few years"?    What are the most important things you are going to be looking for?   And so on.   
    • This way, when you are presenting the roadmap, you:
      • Know that the customer is serious and actually plans to buy something,
      • What features to highlight in your products,
      • Where to focus your presentation.  
    • I have been in situations, where we closed the deal because we asked these questions before presenting and also in situations where after learning that the customer had no intention to buy, we refused to tell them our roadmap (in a polite way of course).
    • The most successful customer meetings are those in which the customer does most of the talking (at least 50% of the time).
  • Help your sales team: The first and most useful advice I got from the guy who convinced me to go to marketing was "Always make sure you are a resource to your sales guys (and gals)".   
    • Remember, marketing is a support function.   Engineering makes the product, sales sells it.   Marketing makes sure that engineering is building the right product, it is priced right, and sales has the sales tools to sell it.   But you can get rid of marketing and engineering would still build a product and sales would still sell some of it.  
    • So, by helping the sales team, I mean making sure they have the right customer ready presentations, the value proposition and positioning of your product and its major benefits are well presented, you provide good tools to train your sales team, you provide additional tools that the sales team can use to convince customers of the value of the product, and so on.
  • Learn to tell stories: In everything you do in life, the most important advice I can give you is Learn to Tell Stories.   Always start your presentations and pepper your conversations with personal stories.  
    • For example, if you are building a more fuel efficient car engine, then start with something like "I bought a SUV a few years ago, when gas prices were $2 a gallon.   Of course, with my luck, as soon as we got the SUV, prices shot up to $3.   Boy, it really pinches at the gas pump.   So, I can't wait to get this new car engine to the market that will cut my monthly gas bill by $200". 
    • The most common pushback I hear to this is -- "My company builds a technology component for other businesses, so its really hard for me to tell simple stories like this". 
    • That is the beauty of personal stories; there is always something that you can talk to.   For example, a senior manager at my company recently presented to a large audience and he started by unwrapping a gift in front of the audience and pulling out a magazine.   He told the audience about how he has kept that 10 year old magazine because it represented the first time his company got on the front cover, etc, etc, etc.   It was a great story that captured the audiences attention and made them want to listen to this really interesting guy.
All right, hope these were useful tips.   You can learn about marketing from some of the articles I authored.

Please leave a comment. I really look forward to your experiences and feedback.  Or send me a note at sumitg AT

Sumit Gupta

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