Other Roles with Which Project Managers Interact

By Brian Lawley, Pamela Schure

As product manager, you touch almost every part of an organization and may not even realize it. Only many years after you’ve left a product management role and find someone in an obscure part of the company who recognizes you do you realize the extent of your reach. It’s a humbling thought.

One excellent practice is to swing through the building once or twice a day checking in with key functions. If certain functions are remote, check in with them via email, a meeting, or a phone call at least once a week. You can address any issues and concerns while they’re small.

Sales

The overall goal of a sales function is to facilitate the sales process. A sales process is one in which customers come to the conclusion that they should purchase your product and then do so. However, sales isn’t a monolithic function. Breaking down the sales department into its various roles shows how important they are to a product manager:

  • Sales representative: These are the people who actively talk to customers and convince them that they should buy a product. Sales representatives are usually paid at least partly on commission. If they can’t figure out how to sell your product, they’ll sell something else so that they can “make their sales number.”

Your job as a product manager is to make sure that they have a deep understanding of your product and become successful at selling it. Along with your product marketing manager, your job is to make sure that sales representatives have the right information to make the case for your product. Sales presentations, competitive selling sheets, and benefit/feature and pricing comparison charts are a good place to start.

  • Sales engineer or technical sales: For technical products, often someone has to have a highly technical conversation with a customer about creating an elegant solution to a complicated customer problem. This person is typically called a sales engineer, although this title can vary wildly.

Just like the sales representative, the sales engineer explains your product story to the customer. The one big difference is that he might actually using your product at the time running a demonstration. You want to give your sales engineers a much more in-depth briefing about the technical aspects of the product than you give to your sales representatives.

These folks have another important role to play in the life of a product manager: They talk to customers — in many cases, unhappy ones. If you can’t get out and talk to customers directly because they are too far away or you simply don’t have the time to see each unhappy customer, the sales engineer is great source of unsolved customer problems. And unresolved problems are a great source of new product ideas.

  • Sales operations: Sales operations staffers make sure that the back office work is done to make the sale. Part of the nitty-gritty work you do as a product manager is to make sure that sales operations have done a great job of setting up any necessary business systems so that products can easily be sold. These people know what that job entails — in detail. Visit them often in case issues arise. They know how to create workarounds quickly and fix problems in the long term.

Marketing

In the sequence of getting product into customer’s hands, marketing is the next function over from product management and product marketing. Though over time you communicate with the entire company, marketing translates what you do into the overall context of the company messaging for all products and brands.

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The information sequence from product management to sales.

The marketing role includes generating customer demand, helping product marketing and sales respond to competitive moves, taking care of public relations, planning events, and creating material that supports the sales force and channel. You’ll spend many productive and thought-provoking hours with marketing.

Legal

Your involvement with the legal department depends on the type of industry you serve. If you’re in the insurance or medical fields, legal is highly involved with your product specifications. For many product managers, legal only gets involved whenever the company is making a contract with an outside party. For most products, your legal department needs to vet any kind of binding or implied promise made to a customer, partner, contractor, or third-party vendor.

Product development

Product development or, as it is sometimes called, engineering, is the organization that creates your product. Many specialties fall under this one title, including (but certainly not limited to) the following categories:

  • User experience or interface designers
  • Software developers
  • Hardware engineers
  • Quality assurance

Your relationship with product development is key to your success as a product manager. The product development people translate the customer problems that you define into real products that address those needs. How well they do depends on your ability to clearly explain what customers have told you into something that product development can act on. The quality of your communication and influencing skills is critical in making sure that you’re heard well.

One issue that arises is how much direction you provide them. Engineers like to solve problems quickly. In many instances, you want to thoroughly discuss what the customer’s problems and needs are while the engineers want to quickly get to a solution. Your job is to keep them in the problem space long enough so that they really flesh out the ins and outs of the customer problem. Once you believe that everyone on the team has fully understood the customer problem, you can use mind maps and other tools to work through possible solutions. Engineers take the lead once the search for a solution is underway.

Finance

Finance is really focused on keeping the numbers straight and making sure the company is making more than it spends. You work with this department on the following topics:

  • Expenses: How much did your product cost to develop, and how much is the actual cost of the product to product or deliver to customers?
  • Revenue and profits: What is expected revenue, and how much of that can accurately be allocated to profit?
  • Pricing: This area is a combination of the two previous bullets. During a pricing discussion, you need to keep a clear head on the real value of a product to a customer given all the other alternatives. Avoid turning it into a discussion about the amount of money that the company will make per unit. If no one buys the product because the price is too high, the price is wrong no matter how profitable.

Operations

Operations ensures that your product actually reaches your customer with as few hurdles to overcome as possible. You want the process to be friction-free because each hurdle is another opportunity for the sale to stop. The operations department is in charge of mapping out each step, and you need to convince them to implement as simple a process as possible so that your customers can easily buy your product. You may also need to bring in product development to make sure your customer’s journey is mapped out into as few steps as possible.

Here are a couple of examples of ways in which having operations working with development improved customer experiences:

  • Amazon wanted to decrease the required number of steps when purchasing a product from its website. The company eventually developed 1-Click ordering by engaging all aspects of its operations team to speed purchases.
  • When Starbucks began offering Wi-Fi in its coffee shops, logging into the service took two clicks. Today, Starbucks has combined both steps so patrons can accept and connect with one click.

Working with operations is detailed work. You must be prepared to sort out any of the following:

  • Settings in the data tracking systems such as SAP that drive the company.
  • How a part number is constructed to give internal audiences information.
  • The actual process for requesting a part number. Who do you ask? Is there a particular form or way to make this request?
  • Transportation flows of physical product as it moves from manufacturing through a distributor and eventually to a customer.

Each company has its own way of setting up internal systems and processes so that the company runs properly. You need to understand the details of how these systems intersect with your goal of getting products in the hands of customers. In the end, it’s rewarding work to get right, and your operations people will love you for spending the time to get all the details done correctly.

Service and support

Service and support are the unsung heroes of your success. Much like sales engineers, service and support people hear directly from customers — and mostly from unhappy customers (it is rare that customers contact support to tell them how pleased they are.) They provide the after-sales support that keeps your customers satisfied as they use your product. As a product management your interactions with service and support happen for three main reasons:

  • You want to know what problems customers are having with today’s products so you can improve the situation in the next revision or maybe even develop something entirely new, if the problem is big enough.
  • If a lot of customers are calling to complain about a particular issue or bug, service and support are great at collecting data on the problem and letting you know (in no uncertain terms, at times) that the bug needs to be fixed. Be clear with them on any constraints that you have in fixing a product issue. Whatever you do, take their comments seriously.
  • As part of the product launch process, plan training sessions with anyone who supports customers so that they are ready to take calls and answer customer questions on day 1 of product availability.

When your service and support agents are great, they can keep your customers loyal for many years. Take time to visit them, train them, and respect them.

Service and support are part of the whole product offering. The service and support department is often seen as outside the control of the product manager. However, if the department impacts your customer’s happiness and willingness to buy the product, you should speak up and ask for support and service department changes if necessary.