- Modern B2B product management can be complex, with multiple cross-functional alignment points and increasing pressures to deliver successful products
- Jeff Lash, vice president and group director of product management at SiriusDecisions, provides answers to frequently asked questions
- From dispelling common myths about agile to exploring the product development process, this SiriusDecisions guide provides useful insights
A critical function in any B2B organization, product management has received greater attention in recent years as the roles within the function evolve and increase in prominence. Product management leaders and the product managers on their teams carry responsibility for everything from understanding customers to developing product pricing and packaging strategies and deciding when to sunset a specific solution. Meanwhile, the growing popularity of agile and lean methods has prompted the reevaluation of many core processes.
SiriusDecisions provides expert research on all aspects of B2B product management, and in this blog post we’ve compiled important insights for anyone new to product management or anyone looking for a refresher on current best practices. I recently spoke with Jeff Lash, vice president and group director, product management, who provided answers to some of the most frequently asked questions.
What is product management?
“SiriusDecisions defines product management as having responsibility for the overall commercial success of the company’s products or portfolio of offerings over the entire lifecycle of a product,” Jeff notes. Responsibilities within this lifecycle typically cover the following sequence:
- Define market needs for potential buyers. Product management starts with defining what needs exist in the market for potential buyers, followed by creating potential solutions to address those needs and determining the strategy for addressing them.
- Build products and solutions. Next, product managers are responsible for ensuring the products and solutions selected for development are built.
- Manage lifecycle. Finally, product managers must manage these products and solutions through the lifecycle as they get upgraded and evolve, until they eventually need to be sunset.
What does a B2B product management team do? How does B2B product management differ from B2C product management?
“B2B product management is generally pretty similar to B2C product management, but there are some key differences,” Jeff explains. “In B2B, the buyers are not always the users; you have people buying products on behalf of other people. Therefore, in B2B product management, you need to understand the differences between your buyers and users and see how they might work together.”
In addition, B2B sales organizations often play a much more important role in new product innovation and product lifecycle management. A “great” product that is difficult for sellers to understand or for which there aren’t the appropriate sales incentives may fail in the market. Many B2B products also have multiple potential sales channels, which affects how the products need to be designed and managed. Working with channel partners raises additional considerations related to elements such as integration, pricing and packaging, and ongoing support. Consumer products, in contrast, might be sold through retailers or distributors or e-commerce, but the products remain essentially the same.
“The ecosystem of internal and external stakeholders in B2B is also different,” Jeff says. “For example, we know through our research into how B2B buyers behave that industry analysts can have a strong influence in the buying process, so getting analyst coverage or appearing in certain niche trade publications may be extremely important. This also means the places where you get input and ideas for future products and enhancements vary and depend on the broad group of stakeholders involved.”
Finally, many — though certainly not all — B2B products have a much more limited audience than mass-market B2C products. Although some can be sold to any business, in other cases there may be a low number (e.g. 50) of potential worldwide customers within the market segment that the product serves.
What skills does a good product manager need?
“The most important skill is the ability and willingness to understand customer needs,” says Jeff. “If we don’t understand customer needs, we can’t build good products that address them.”
Another major competency area is analyzing opportunities. Product managers need to be able to determine whether an idea makes sense from a financial perspective and aligns with overall company strategy. They operate with the knowledge that although many ideas might result in products that can make money, they are not necessarily all good commercial opportunities for the particular organization.
Once an opportunity is identified and selected for further evaluation, product managers need to conduct product discovery to figure out what the appropriate solution would be to address customer needs and the market opportunity. “One mistake we see a lot of product managers doing is getting one idea in their head and then charging forward with it, rather than thinking about different ways they can address a customer need,” Jeff adds. “Good product managers are the ones who can take a step back and identify multiple needs and various ways to address a problem.”
As an idea takes shape, translating it into execution also is key. Once the product is in the market, the product manager must manage it like a business. “Ask yourself, ‘What is the long-term product roadmap? How does this continue to fit into the overall portfolio of the company?’” Jeff says. “It’s not just a matter of launching and moving on to the next product. Make sure you are managing the product’s long-term success.”
How should product management align with sales and marketing?
Leading B2B organizations maintain tight alignment between product, marketing and sales from the beginning of the product lifecycle process. “Companies tend to fail when they take the throw-it-over-the-wall approach — when the engineers build the product and tell marketing it’s ready and then marketing tells sales to sell it,” Jeff warns.
Instead, he recommends getting input from sales early in the product development process. When reps have multiple products to sell, they tend to take the path of least resistance. Involving them early on can not only help shape the product to meet customer needs, but also help them better understand a product and be excited to sell it.
Marketing also should be involved during product development. “You can create the best product in the world, but if no one knows about it, it will not be successful,” Jeff says. “You can’t just hand marketing a product before launch and tell them to figure it out.” Marketing can offer a wealth of information, from buyer identification to brand positioning, that can shape product definition. Product management can provide early feedback on messaging to ensure that the product can deliver on its promise.
How is agile used in B2B product management?
Recent SiriusDecisions research shows that about 80% of B2B companies are using some form of agile, whether “pure agile” or a blended approach. When switching fully or partially to agile, product management leaders must keep in mind that although many processes (e.g. writing requirements documents) will change, a fundamental understanding of customer needs and defining a strategic product roadmap remains essential.
“One mistake we see a lot of companies making is that they over-correct when moving to agile and throw good product management practices out the window,” Jeff notes. “They replace laborious processes with fast-moving ones, but that can sometimes result in no planning or visibility. They conduct random acts of agile — every sprint produces something, but they’re not moving toward a broader strategy. Marketing and sales — and customers — get frustrated because they have no view to what’s coming beyond the next sprint.”
To be successful with agile, product management leaders must blend solid product management practices with agile-specific training. Flexibility is important, but they also must maintain focus on strategic objectives and priorities. “If you have no idea what you are doing next week or next quarter, that is not a good position to be in,” Jeff says. “Sales, marketing and your customers need to be aware of and have confidence in the direction you’re going. Companies often misinterpret agile as meaning that they don’t need to plan, when in fact it’s just a different approach to planning, usually with a different time horizon and level of granularity than it was before the move to agile.”