What makes a good product manager?

courtesy of @crankypm.com

I have had the opportunity to work with good and bad product managers, as well as fill that role myself. There are a few key traits that differentiate between the good and the bad, at least when it comes to web, data or technology products. Below are my top 5.

In depth understanding of the product

I find the best product managers truly do understand their product, and where customers are getting value. These are the ones you can rely on to give you an honest assessment of whether the product can be used to solve a problem today, as well as having a strong enough understanding of what it does, to make a determination of whether it can or should do something in the future. The weaker product managers don’t have a strong foundation on where customers derive their value, and therefore can’t help you truly assess what it can do today, versus what it could do tomorrow. This latter group typically will rely on product developers to fill in the details, or the customer facing personnel to provide the use cases.

A solid sense of direction

Another key difference between good product managers and weaker ones is whether they have a sense of direction for the product. Simple things like having a roadmap, or being able to quickly assess whether a new feature request aligns to the strategic direction of the product differentiate the two groups. Customers want to know what you are bringing to the table in terms of new features and functionality. They also want to know that they are being heard, even if those feature requests don’t align to the product direction. Being able to explain the current position, the near-term future direction and respond as to why this request doesn’t fit, is critical to having a solid product ecosystem.

Willingness to meet with customers

Great product managers are interested in how the customers use the system, regardless of how it’s been designed to be used. Further, great product managers want to engage with customers to continue to evolve with the business problem the product has been designed to solve. Those conversations can sometimes be contentious or frustrating, but they are an absolute necessity to continue to be relevant.

Ability to follow through

It is not enough to meet with customers that one time. These days, it is also not enough to gather your information and go off to develop the product in a silo. Customers want and need to be engaged. It’s critical that product managers follow up and follow through. This is almost more important when the decision does not align to the customer request. Customers want to understand why and how – there could be a very good reason that the request can not be fulfilled. The core business problem the customer raised is still a fundamental issue (to the customer). Is your product going to solve it? or do they need to look at alternatives?

Communication is key

At the end of the day, communications is key. This is an underlying theme to the previously mentioned traits, but it’s important to call out separately. Once the new features and functionality has been released, it is critical for the product manager to be able to articulate the feature/functionality, explain our understanding of the problem it addresses, clearly articulate how this feature/functionality fits into the product suite from a contract/pricing perspective and finally solicit feedback as to whether we delivered.

At the end of the day, the best product managers have been a pleasure to work with. They really own the products they manage, and have a very strong understanding of why and how customers use them. They are the starting point for all conversations around the art of the possible, and are always willing to have a conversation to get a new idea, or work with a customer on a problem. They are organized at the tactical level, and open minded at the strategic level.