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The Key to Climbing the Product Management Career Ladder? Understanding Your Customers.

September 15, 2017

It used to be that if a product manager wanted to move up in their career they only had two options: director or VP. Now, a diverse range of new product-related roles are popping up at B2B companies, allowing product managers a wide variety of opportunities to grow. But if you’re in a product manager role today, how do you navigate developing the right skills to excel in this changing career landscape?

At a recent Orange County Product Managers event, John Mansour from Product Management University shared some valuable insight into the mindset and skills product managers need to move up in their careers from his 16 years of product management training with B2B companies around the globe. The key? Understanding your customers better than you understand your products.

Now, that may sound obvious. Of course product managers need to understand their customers to be successful. But John breaks it down in a way that really illustrates how product managers need to think as they move up in their careers.

Level One: The Tactical End User

The first rung of the product management ladder usually carries a title like product owner, product analyst, business analyst, or product manager. At this level your focus is the job of your users and making them measurably better at that job.  Sure, you’re expected to know your product backward and forward, but to truly excel according to John, “you need to know the job of your user better than you know your product.”

You need to know the job of your user better than you know your product.

– John Mansour

This means that you need to step outside of the features and functionality of your product and understand the ultimate goal of your end user’s job and the metrics on which they’re measured. That way you can understand the obstacles your end users face in achieving those goals, which is where your products can truly have an impact.

John recommends this exercise to strengthen that skill: describe your product without talking about a single feature or even mentioning your product name. If you can describe the value your product provides without leaning on specific product features, then you’re well on your way to mastering this rung of the product management ladder.

Level Two: The Operational Department

Once you’ve mastered the job responsibilities of your individual users, it’s time to move up to an operational focus and look at your customer’s department. At this level you need to understand the operational goals of different departments in your customer organizations, the metrics used to measure the success of those departments, and how the departments impact the strategy of the larger organization. This will help you identify business problems and solutions.

From a career perspective, this will help you jump from an individual product manager to a role such as portfolio manager or business practice owner. To master this rung you must understand the larger challenges department heads face so you can ensure that the relevant products in your portfolio are properly positioned to meet their needs.

Level Three: The Strategy of the Customer Organization

When you reach the third rung on the product management ladder, you’re focused on the top-down strategies of your target customers. Now you’re working to understand your customer’s vertical industry and the challenges of companies in that market segment. Your goal is to make customer organizations measurably better at their business so they can be competitive and successful within their industry.

At this rung in the career ladder you’re an industry segment owner or general manager. You need to understand the larger industry trends driving your customers’ verticals so you can position your own products in a way that improves your customers’ competitive positions within the market.

The Value of the Customer Perspective

The undercurrent through all of these levels is the importance of truly understanding the business goals of your customer — as an individual contributor (user), as an operational function (department head), and as an organization (senior executive). To do this you need to be consistently putting your products aside and getting out of the office (either physically or digitally) to collect feedback from real customers. This will help you gather the data needed to build more successful products and excel in your career.

To read more of John’s work, visit Product Management University. To learn how to use Customer Validation to better understand your customers, visit our resource library. If you’re a product manager in Southern California interested in continuing to learn and growing your career, connect with Orange County Product Managers.

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