You’re the go-to get-it-done-gal/guy, the linchpin between departments, teams, higher-ups and lower-downs. There’s a word for for what you do: everything. Or, at least it feels that way.
But you’re not far off. As product manager, you have the information everyone needs (which means they come to you when they need facts and figures), and you’re in charge of taking that information and sifting through ideas to create a real product, for real people.
Fun fact: There’s a card in Tarot called The Magician. He’s the one who takes ideas from the sky and transforms them into something tangible. You’re The Magician.
“But when you’re The Magician, ego is a no go,” says Jess Sherlock, Group Product Manager at GoSpotCheck, a Denver-based software company. “Be self-aware, be humble, be the calm in the chaos. But here’s the trick: You’re no one’s boss, and killer product managers know how to influence without authority.”
The product manager’s role is so much about effective communication—and yet those “communications” courses you took in your MBA program probably didn’t prepare you for… this.
That’s Roman Pichler’s diagram of the many responsibilities often assigned to Product Managers. Look familiar? John Cutler, Senior Product Manager at Zendesk and prolific product management writer puts it this way:
“In a lot of organizations, you’re swimming in this diagram. You’re all over the place. Especially in a smaller organization, this diagram might be your brain. . . . Product is the connective glue. They literally fill the cracks of everything.”
It’s a hard job with a lot of moving parts—but knowing a few hacks can make it easier on yourself (and everyone else).
“Killer product managers know how to influence without authority.”
Hack 1: Learn to share (data, that is)
The Sales department needs a spec sheet, Marketing needs to know the next round of feature updates on the docket, and the COO popped in to ask for your numbers in time for the next board meeting (which is in 20 minutes). If these examples seem all too familiar, you’re sitting on an information silo.
That’s probably not your fault.
Data tends to be in the hands of the few. If transparency with data isn’t your organization’s strong suit, you may have to convince the higher-ups of the value of creating a central repository for numbers, but the increased efficiency is well worth the effort.
Crystal J. Allen, CTO and Product Manager at HausCall, says: “Attaching the product story to the numbers they see can be valuable. The data is often seen as an isolated piece of the product work, when in fact, it is the product at work. Simplistic data sets that complement the product goals and narrative can go a long way with the team at large.”
Here are some new tools to help you share data efficiently and automatically.
- Notion: For organizing, visualizing and instant sharing of product, team and performance data. SaaS companies like RADAR use Notion to create public dashboards that anyone in the company can check, any time.
This kind of transparency with data is gaining ground across industries because it keeps everyone on the same page, encourages feelings of trust and confidence, and takes the burden off of people like product managers to come up with report-ready stats at the drop of a hat.
- Segment: Organizes customer data from multiple platforms (mobile, web, servers, cloud apps) and sends it out to tools and platforms like Salesforce, Zendesk, and Slack. Their tagline says it all: “Segment unblocks every team, from engineering to product to marketing.” And that’s what data transparency is all about: unblocking. (Hey, InVision uses it—it must be good!)
- Wootric: Makes real-time analysis and routing of Voice of Customer feedback available to all teams. “When we were starting out, pushing NPS and verbatims into a Slack channel gave everyone the ability to act on customer feedback, not just Product. Now we also route customer feedback to Salesforce so sales and marketing have the account-level info they need to address relationships, while we focus on how feedback impacts our roadmap,” says Prabhat Jha, Wootric’s CTO.
Even if you don’t have time or resources to integrate new tools into your ecosystem, there’s another hack you can try: “Use your Jedi-PM skills. Once you’ve identified the ‘recurring metrics,’ create a functional prototype in Google Sheets to share with stakeholders. If the value is there, you might even get extra resources and sponsorship to improve it,” suggests Beata Kovacs, Product Director at Emarsys.
But, giving people access to all the data doesn’t necessarily guarantee they won’t come running to you.
Hack 2: Organize the humans
One of the biggest challenges for product managers is that nothing has a regular meeting associated with it. It feels like doing a lot of ad hoc things that are specifically for Board decks.
–John Cutler, Senior Product Manager, Zendesk
What are your FAQs—the questions you’re (too) often asked? And who are your FQAs (frequent question askers)? Instead of bending your schedule around their requests, John Cutler suggests holding regular meetings to share the specific information these stakeholders need.
On my team at Wistia, my tech lead, designer and I host weekly office hours where we are available to answer the questions that come up during the week. If it’s a light day, we focus on backlog grooming and other activities to use that time to our advantage.
–Molly Wolfberg, Lead PM for product development of Wistia’s video marketing and hosting application
When you’re putting together your FAQ information, consider how these people act on it—and what form your data should take to help them get the results they’re after. That will cut down on “emergency” requests for different versions of the same info.
In my experience, the key to reducing these interruptions lies in consistency and cross-functional teams. We anticipate the depth and scope of the information that might be requested, and as soon as discovery kicks off, we start building an internal knowledge base. Every time we discover a new piece of (relevant) information, we add it to—in this case—a confluence page. Although it sounds time consuming, the main purpose is to share the same link with everyone (so we can control the source of information). It also allows anyone to ask contextual questions that will give us a great foundation for how we should be communicating around the product once it’s ready for the first beta users.
–Beata Kovacs, Product Director at Emarsys
Hack 3: Get clear on your True North and Measure it
The most important communication challenges have nothing to do with data or sprints, and everything to do with vision.
Vision is the foundation for every task your team undertakes, every idea they share, and every decision you make, which means it’s vitally important for everyone to have the *same* vision.
- Who are the users and customers?
- Why would they use and buy the product?
- What makes the product special? What are its key features?
- What are the business goals the product should deliver and how are they met?
Basically, your vision starts by clarifying who is buying your product and why. But I’m going to throw one more question into this mix:
What is your customer trying to achieve with your product—their “desired outcome”?
This is the Customer Success angle that often gets lost when working in the weeds of product dev. But it’s really your big “Why?” Why are you here? Why are you working so hard?
It’s so your ideal customers can achieve their desired outcomes. And that doesn’t mean using your product. It doesn’t mean using your product to make their jobs easier. It means using your product to make their jobs easier so they can go home earlier to have dinner with their families.
This is what an ideal outcome looks like. via GIPHY.
Or whatever it is. The point being: The ideal outcome is often outside of your product, but it’s something your customers really, emotionally want.
You need to know what that is so you can design your product and UX to help your customers achieve it.
Catherine Shyu, Product Manager at FullContact, calls the articulation of this step the user journey map: “It’s a powerful way of creating a shared understanding within your team of how your product fits into a customer’s workflow. Every department in your company benefits from having empathy around the ultimate outcome customers are trying to achieve with your product.”
That’s your True North, and that is the vision you need everyone working towards.
Why is this so important?
Well, it’s important for your company, because helping customers achieve ideal outcomes is how SaaS companies grow, improve retention rates, reduce churn, and generate user referrals that act like a force of nature.
And it’s important for you—because with this larger vision top-of-mind, you’ll be able to sift through the feature requests, prioritize the projects that serve that ideal outcome, and sweep the rest off of the table.
As the product manager, conveying the vision often requires me to get active participation from my team to get these questions answered early on. This allows the team to buy into the vision early on in the process, which makes execution that much easier. This way, if we ever get sidetracked in ‘feature creep’ mode or meet any deterrence on the engineering front, the team can always be reminded of the vision we established.
–Crystal J. Allen, CTO and Product Manager at HausCall
And don’t forget to metricize that True North.
“What gets measured, gets done,” says Prabhat Jha, CTO of Wootric. “We began by using NPS as a simple proxy for whether our customers are getting to their ‘ideal outcome.’ This past year we added CES (Customer Effort Score) surveys at the conclusion of onboarding to learn how Product can help customers get there faster.”
Once you’ve established True North, there’s another piece of advice from Beata Kovacs, Product Director at Emarsys: “While defining True North will help with alignment and setting a common goal, you need to be careful with setting the vision without having tangible, strategic outcomes along the way. The vision will define the direction, but it won’t define the journey, and when it comes to daily decisions, it might be too far away from those everyday problems (and create false assumptions on what we know and what we think we know).
So don’t forget about defining the strategy on how your team or product will get there. It doesn’t have to be a roadmap. Rather, make guidelines that are co-owned and allow true cross-functionality where everyone understands what their contribution looks like and where their expertise is needed.”
Hack 4: Simplify your stack
Basically, you were swimming in tools—I couldn’t even count all the particular things. Trello, Google Docs, Evernote, DropBox, and someone from marketing would introduce Basecamp. Then you’d have a ticketing system like Jira, and then GitHub to review different statements; then email and powerpoint,because someone decides they can only use Powerpoint, not the Google version of it.
–John Cutler, Senior Product Manager at Zendesk
Every product manager has a stack of communication tools—often, a high stack. But many of the tools product managers like to use aren’t intended for you; they’re designed for engineers to knock out tickets. Then you find yourself trying to bend that tool for purposes it was never meant to do, become frustrated, and keep adding tools to try and cover the gaps (driving your team crazy in the process).
Don’t be that manager.
There are a ton of tools out there, and the right tools are really those that work best for you. That said, here are a few that cover a lot of ground.
- Pivotal Tracker: Use to define your workflow, collaborate on daily tasks, and trade updates.
“What’s great about Tracker is it helps define the workflow, but isn’t so rigid that you can’t bring your own process to it… Tracker gets out of the way and lets you get your work done.” –Kevin Steigerwald, Co-founder and CPO of Notion
- Zapier: Use to create workflows that automate tasks between apps, like Basecamp, Slack, Google Docs, Trello and Gmail.
“My personal favorite tool is Asana, as I find it an extremely lightweight way to create, assign tasks, and add additional details as necessary. We currently use JIRA at LinkedIn, which is great for larger teams where the custom filters and dashboards become more helpful.
Regardless of what tool you use, the most important part is ensuring the rest of the team understands that’s where they go to find out what they need to work on, to report bugs, and to understand the team’s progress.”
Rekhi also recommends sending out weekly or monthly status emails to summarize progress and relate it back to “the larger picture” against the roadmap. And, I would argue, to relate it back to the vision (Hack #3).
Beata Kovacs, Product Director at Emarsys, says her company has a stack of over 50 tools for progress tracking, and to simplify, she makes sure everything connects to her email so she doesn’t miss any important updates. “When I find myself overwhelmed with new tools and processes,” she says, “I always try to take a step back and think about the outcomes I want to achieve.”
Video > text
Perhaps the greatest simplification hack is—coincidentally—the simplest. Don’t write when you can record.
“Before using video, I would have to write paragraphs describing product vision, details of a new feature and bug reproduction steps (usually together with multiple screenshots), and wonder if anyone actually read them.
With video, I can explain the ‘why’ behind a feature, show a new workflow and report a bug in seconds, and see how many people watched my video (with their engagement metrics) so I can improve my videos over time.”
Hack 5: Make friends with Customer Success
I’ve found when there’s a strong customer success team, I spend a lot of time with them. I pair up with them. I’m on calls with them a lot because I learn from their conversations, and their conversations aren’t salesy. They’re more like ‘how are you getting value out of the product?’
–John Cutler, Senior Product Manager, Zendesk
Beata Kovacs, Product Director at Emarsys, says that too often, client-facing departments “act as a great wall between product and the users.” Sales, Customer Success and Support know more about customers’ daily struggles than anyone else, but most of that feedback doesn’t make it to the product teams.
Wistia product manager Molly Wolfberg has a solution for this:
“At Wistia, we have monthly meetings across all the customer-facing teams where they aggregate monthly insights to pass along to the product teams. It’s a huge help and focuses all of us to prioritize what is being heard across the organization.”
Wise product managers know that a good Customer Success department can help them do things like:
- Prioritize features and create a living product road map
- Avoid the “next feature fallacy” and the “product death cycle” that comes from implementing suggestions by not-ideal customers
- Fine-tune your onboarding sequence by suggesting Success Milestones that matter to the customer (which leads to retention)
Forming a partnership with Customer Success helps everyone align with the bigger picture—what the customer needs. And that helps you to keep pushing to build a better product.
Just remember to share the insights you get from the customer-facing departments with everyone on your team. Because really, successful product management always comes back to sharing the vision.
Read more about product management: Lessons from 30 days in product management.
Nichole is an early-stage SaaS consultant and she also helps SaaS founders launch, engage, and build communities around their products. She is the co-founder of Purpose Beyond Product, in which she runs masterminds for the SaaS community. (Check it out, there might be one you can apply to right now!) She's also got a book: The Playbook to Grow Your SaaS With your Customers.