How many times have you heard a comment around the office that 'work would be so much easier without clients' which, whilst clearly tongue in cheek, does accurately reflect the tensions that can build up between a service provider and their client base. All organizations will attempt to create products that are the best fit to the perceived clients’ needs, and which are also able to be serviced by your current operational capabilities. However, clients aren’t restrained by your current capabilities, so will naturally push for ever more expansive service offerings, and how we deal with these demands will almost certainly influence whether we retain their business or not.
Product managers have developed a, sometimes deserved, reputation over the years for developing their products in an ivory tower without sufficient reference to market input. I have certainly come across a couple of individuals who had a propensity for saying that the clients were wrong, whenever their opinions were communicated back to the product team. As we discussed in an earlier article in this series, that sort of reaction does very little to help build a sense of team with the client facing staff who then have to decide what to feedback to their supposedly clueless clients!
So, as an organization how can you ensure that you are seen to be listening to your clients, responsive to their suggestions, but also in control of the direction in which you take your product set? The answer lies with a careful balance of effective research, strong communication with the clients, and an honest approach to impact feedback. We’ll look at these one by one:
As every school pupil knows, life is easier if you have done your homework, and the same applies here. Product managers must undertake an effective ongoing program of research to ensure that they fully understand their market, the evolution of this line of business, any geographical variations in needs by region and, as ever, whether regulation is likely to play a part. Best of breed product management systems will allow product managers to accurately record this information, identifying the key aspects of business that this particular piece of information refers to, which will make recovering it at a later date far easier. Increasingly, we are also seeing management teams wanting to obtain greater visibility over this research, in the first instance to ensure that it is being done to the expectations of the organization, but at a secondary level with a desire to be able to easily pull together all the latest input on a certain topic for their ongoing strategic planning. The world changes fast, so it is critical to be able to monitor that all research is ongoing, rather than outdated hearsay from three years ago.
Lines of communication must always be strong between a product team and the end client. Some relationship management teams can get a little over sensitive of allowing product staff to have direct discussions with the client, but these are always important and should help to build the credibility of the organization. A good product manager should, by definition, know more about their product and the direction that it will take within their organization than the sales team will. If that’s not the case, then you probably have a more fundamental problem to address. However, on this assumption it is incredibly valuable for a product manager to discuss their plans with the end client, hear the views coming back from the “horse’s mouth”, and share what they have heard from other sources which may support the client view – or potentially explain why a different approach is being taken.
An area that has been a real issue, over recent years, is the bravery to give honest feedback to the client around the potential impact of their requests. A particular example was the pre-global financial crisis hedge fund world, where many service providers took on ever more elaborate and increasingly inconsistent requirements for their clients without ever really explaining the cost or operational risk impacts being created. Happily that community is now enjoying a more open discussion, but it still remains incumbent upon product managers to understand how changes will impact their organization and be empowered to give that feedback to the client. If delivered in the right way, this may well make the client decide that actually those changes are not worth the associated risk, or that the costs of operating in this way outweigh the benefits. A relationship that functions in this way will quickly become a strong partnership, rather than a client wielding a big stick over a frightened provider.
As with most things, the client response issue for product managers boils down to being able to give a clear rationale for your decisions, based on a strong market insight, and a good understanding of the point of view of the client that you are talking to. 'Two ears, one mouth' certainly applies here with a need to be able to pull together all of the information that you have researched, and then present it back to a client in a way that they will be able to accept given their own particular position. Building a model which works in this way should quickly demonstrate that working with, rather than without clients, is most certainly the best way forwards