When Is a Product More Than Just a Product?

By Derek Britton June 21, 2012

Just as a new restaurant would not forget to set its tables opening night, any product manager spearheading a product launch must consider numerous activities that are integral to creating the optimum customer experience.

For most readers, this broad spectrum of influence is a simple concept to grasp. Yet many of today’s high-tech product managers see their product responsibilities as being purely related to the technology they are selling. How many of us are simply hoping or expecting that someone else will “set the table” for us?

The Experience Is More Than Just the Product
When you take your significant other out for a nice romantic dinner, you are not just buying the plate of food in front of you. You are buying a complete dining experience: the ambience, lighting, music, excellent wine selection, superb customer service and all the delicious menu choices.

Similarly, your customer’s view of your product includes: optional features, implementation services, help desk support, training and mentoring, ongoing maintenance and updates from the vendor account team and all points in between. Fundamentally, the customers don't want a product; they want a solution to a specific problem and are expecting you to provide it.

Typically, the product alone does not meet expectations without the rest of the peripheral services that make it a solution for that customer. In fact, many technology products won’t work straight out of the box, often requiring some time and expertise to implement. So why try to hide from the facts? It is illuminating that less than 40% of product managers consider tracking product profitability as their responsibility, according to Pragmatic Institute's 2011 Product Management and Marketing Survey.

Here are a few questions we product managers need to ask ourselves:
•    Do we know what resources are required to make the product work onsite?
•    Do we spend enough time thinking about and planning to improve the way the overall solution is provided to our clients?
•    Do we know which value-add services should and could be provided by our professional services team or third-party partners?
•    Do we know what other services we can upsell, and how to spot those opportunities in a post-implementation, customer-care situation?
•    Does our customer-support team ask questions about the product-use environment and new projects underway to determine potential problems or new opportunities?
•    Does our account team include the service-delivery people, or are they merely brought in to deliver the service after the fact and nothing more?
•    Is our service delivery team given any incentive to spot upsell opportunities for either products or services?

The Product Manager’s Role
Just as the restaurant owner needs to oversee the entire dining experience, the product manager (as CEO of the product) needs to care about the answers to all of the preceding business process questions—in short, how the customer will find the entire experience and how it can be continuously improved. If you put the customer’s view of working with your entire solution first and consider what they might need as a key objective, you can better determine the right services to offer.

Remember, the customer only sees your organization as a single entity. Don’t let your organizational structure or processes stop you from delivering customer success. Product management likely won't control all the peripheral services required. As such, you will need to influence and lobby across functional boundaries to define and provide additional services, outside of the typical product development and product management functions.

But defining everything else necessary to make the product succeed is key. Typically, your organization may have a services team that is responsible for customer success, in terms of product installation and usage. To achieve this optimized approach, you need to liaise with the “services management” function to provide a framework for:

1.    Risk and bid management
2.    Best-practice methodology
3.    Training and enablement
4.    Resource management

Risk and bid management. You would expect most of the risk management and resource management activities to take place in house, and not to require significant influence from product management. But even in these cases, commentary on likely skill and technical needs, especially for new or emerging product/service mixes, may well be vital. After all, the right type of services may be the difference between a healthy, profitable project and one that runs at a loss.

The commercial or bid team needs to be happy with the license and service mix, the services needed to implement technology, the risks of using that technology or service and its maturity, and any other salient details to help the service bidding process. The services team typically controls this process, but input from product management must be offered. It means product management must not only help define the parameters/outline for the bids, but also how risk assessments and controls are implemented.

Best-practice methodology. Services management knows best how to define the services provided, of course. But its focus is on how that practice is promoted; how those services are defined; and how those services are then governed, managed, escalated, documented, shared, etc. These are all subject to corporate branding, consistency, skills transfer and internal communication—as well as appropriate legal or fiscal checks. This all, of course, presupposes that there is a well-defined yardstick of what those services are, what they do, how they are initiated and what they cost. Product management needs to own how this methodology fits within the corporate product model.

Training and enablement. Don’t be surprised if, as you aim to launch new products, you encounter some resistance to change from services delivery experts, who have been “doing this stuff for years” and don’t need new training or collateral. From one perspective, if a services ace can deliver a service and make the margin, then who cares exactly how he’s doing it, right? Unfortunately, such “expertise” often overlooks things like consistency, appropriate brand awareness, upselling techniques, emerging technology and any number of other factors that may erode longer-term opportunities for repeat business.

Consider the training statistics commonly attached to enterprise software. Gaining expertise on a new technology area requires up to 4 weeks of intensive training, plus a 6-month field assignment. Extrapolated across a services team of say 200 global consultants, that is 100 man-years' effort to be fully operational in a new technology area. Being able to plan and execute internal enablement activities both in a timely fashion and using a scalable approach becomes a critical component of any launch.

Consider a new approach or major refresh of your supporting internal toolkit if you are trying to restart your services offering—not least because it blows the cobwebs of bad habits away.
Resource management. While high-tech products provide most of the intellectual property, the supporting services to round out the customer experience need to be physically delivered by skilled individuals, performing a set of known activities to a defined level of rigor. Therefore, levels of management are required to ensure suitable resources are available to provide the particular service on a particular date.

The product management interface is to ensure appropriate skill levels are set and maintained within that services team, ensure that internal training and enablement is planned on a regular basis as discussed above and to do the right thing when a conflict of interest arises.

Overall, thinking about the surrounding services—and how they are taken to market—as a vital component of the entire product ecosystem will provide a more compelling and satisfying customer experience.

Dining Well
According to Pragmatic Institute's training, our business is not technology; it is continuous problem solving.  As product managers, we can’t afford to misunderstand the word “product” in our job title. Our customers aren’t buying our products; they are buying a solution to their problems. They are buying into the message our salespeople give them, not just a bit of technology.

Look at what sits around the product in terms of customer need. Describe each of the services you provide in terms your client can understand. Define rationale, pricing and attach rates (service-per-product ratios), then set targets that will get buy-in from your delivery teams and revenue owners. If you do not define the breadth of service you provide, you will surely fail to provide it properly.

So set the tables, dim the lights, select the music, create the menu with care and train your team. We want our customers to enjoy their experience, so they want to come back again and again.
Categories: Go-to-Market Strategy Roles & Activities
Derek Britton

Derek Britton

Derek Britton is an IT professional with more than two decades of industry experience, covering a variety of product management, technical services and product development leadership roles. He has written on a variety of IT topics including application modernization, agile and product management. He is currently senior product marketing manager at enterprise software supplier Micro Focus. He may be reached at derekbrittonuk@gmail.com.

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