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The Secrets of Highly Successful Sales People: Objection Handling

How to use better stories to overcome sales objections

During the sales process, the prospect may – and usually does – mention obstacles to getting the deal done. Reasons they might not want to do the deal. They might say “It’s too expensive,” or “your competitor has feature X that you don’t have, and we really need feature X.”

This is a normal part of the sales process. These are called “objections” and the process for getting through them is objection handling.

Objection handling is an important skill for sales people. But if that skill is augmented with great product knowledge (provided by product managers) sales take off.

Prospects may have all kinds of objections, and not all have to do with the product. A prospect might be concerned that your company might go out of business, or that there won’t be enough skilled consultants to handle their implementation needs, just to give two examples. But in this article, I focus on handling objections related to the product.

Why do prospects have objections?

To a large degree it’s not because they are mean or terrible people. There are two reasons. First, objections are used as a negotiating tactic. The prospect might want a better deal, or more services, or just to keep the sales person off balance. And having a few good objections gives the prospect leverage in the negotiation.

But the other reason, and the focus of this article, is that the prospect is working to reduce the risk of making the wrong decision.

The cost of making a wrong decision, especially when buying a business application or service, is very high. There’s the monetary cost – usually substantial for an enterprise application or system. And the change management cost of moving an organization to a new system – your system – is likely to be very high as well. If the new system – your system – doesn’t work, and doesn’t deliver the business value expected, there’s no good outcome for the prospect. At best the prospect has egg on their face. More likely, they don’t get promoted, or they even get fired. And since the business results aren’t there, the business suffers.

So, prospects do everything they can to reduce those risks.

  • They diversify their search. They look at lots of different ways of achieving the solution, including your product and the products of your competitors.
  • Sometimes they try to implement a solution themselves.
  • They might postpone the decision. After all, a known bad (the current situation) is sometimes better than an unknown bad (a new application that doesn’t work).
  • They do ROI calculations and other modeling to make sure the problem is worth solving, and that the solution is cost-effective (assuming it works).
  • They will try to get the solution for less money – this is the negotiating part – which reduces their financial risk.

But the risk mitigation we’re concerned about in this article is their product-related buying objections, and how to get the prospect past them.

The All-Important Initial Condition

There is an ethical consideration at the outset in the objection handling process. It applies to the whole selling process. And that is that you must have a good faith belief that your solution will actually benefit the prospect.

Don’t be the person who makes any promise necessary to get the business, when your solution isn’t actually a good fit for the prospect. And don’t enable your sales people to do that either!

That said, let’s get down to brass tacks.

Reducing the perception of risk

From a rational standpoint, we have one main goal when responding to a prospect’s objections – to reduce their perception of risk.

Better product knowledge, and being able to show how customers are using the product to solve their real world problems, goes a long way toward addressing these objections. If you can talk about a customer who has faced a similar problem as the prospect’s, and solved it with your solution that gives you a strong, persuasive story for reducing perceived risk.

Likewise, showing the prospect a demo of your product that shows how it addresses their specific needs is great for reducing perceived risk.

Prepping to handle objections

You can predict many product-related objections in advance. These types of objections come up in almost any sales situation. They include:

  • Competitive gaps.
  • Missing features.
  • Questions like “How does your product handle situation X?”

You can sometimes preempt objections like these upfront. Asking good questions during discovery (see the previous article) and doing a good prospect-focused demo will help reduce objections. But they’re always likely to come up.

How do you prepare the sales team for these kinds of objections? The best way is to give the sales people true stories they can tell about how other customers have been successful. For each of the expected objections, you prepare various stories based on the experiences your customers have with your product and on your various design and implementation decisions. And of course, if you have amazing features that are differentiating, you want to have stories about them as well.

Stories for objection handling

There are three key story types to develop:

  • Stories that show why a particular objection turns out to be not that important to real customers. (“You wanted feature X, but our customers who also wanted feature X have found they don’t miss it.”)
  • Stories that explain why you made a particular design decision, such as choosing not to implement a feature that a competitor has. (“Our competitors have Feature Y, but we decided that instead of putting a lot of effort into Y – which has limited use – we would focus on the much more important area of Z.”)
  • Stories that explain why a particular feature that you do have is so much more important than what the competitor offers. (“I know you’re considering one of our competitors, but make sure you ask them about how their customers handle ABC with their product. We have several customers who switched from them to us because of our support for ABC.”)

Three things you can do today

  1. Make a list of the features that you have in common with competitors – the table stakes. Generally, you won’t spend too much time talking about these or demonstrating them – everyone has them. However, if you have a table stakes feature that you do much better than competitors, develop stories about that one – about how customers are benefiting, or that industry analysts are very impressed with your implementation, and so on.
  2. Make a list of the things you do that competitors don’t (or that most competitors don’t). Develop stories about how customers chose you because of one of these features or are using this feature to enable something valuable. Perhaps they switched from a competitor because of this feature.
  3. Make a list of the features and capabilities that competitors have that you don’t. Develop reasons and stories of why you chose not to provide those or why customers don’t really get value from them. Stories about why customers choose you despite you not having those features are particularly compelling.

This brief article has just touched the surface of objection handling. I hope it’s given you some ideas and techniques for getting started helping your sales team achieve and crush their quotas!

Do you provide objection handling tools for your sales people? I’d love to hear about what you’ve done in the comments.


The Secrets of Highly Successful Products: The Sales Discovery Call

When the sales team has the right product knowledge, they will be much more successful. Which means they sell a lot more of your product.

This starts from the first call with the prospect. If a sales person asks the wrong questions during that first call…

… then even a good prospect can turn into total loss.

But, ask the right questions …

… and the chances of closing them go way up!

When the sales team has the right product knowledge they can sell a lot more of your product. Click To Tweet

Product Knowledge Drives Successful Discovery Calls

For a good sales person, the goal of the first call, often called the “discovery call,” is understanding the prospect’s pain, in detail. The more they understand about the prospect the more likely they are to close the deal.

In this article I show you how to take what you know about the problems your product solves and turn it into tools that enable sales to blow out their numbers. (This is the fourth installment in my ongoing series about better go-to-market and the leverage that product managers have on sales success. Read the previous articles here: Sales Team Missing Quota? It’s Not Their Fault, What Successful Companies Do To Get Better Leads, and A Better Approach To Demoing Can Turn Sales Around.)

What Does The Prospect Want?

Starting in the discovery call and continuing through the rest of the sales process, the prospect wants to hear certain things:

  • Validation that we understand their problem.
  • An offer of a solution to their problem.
  • Some level of risk reduction that our solution actually works and can be implemented effectively.
  • To minimize the cost of change for them, to the extent possible.
  • To understand why our solution is better than other alternative solutions (including doing nothing).

Those are the prospect’s goals. How do we help them achieve those goals?

Perhaps counter-intuitively, the best way to reassure the prospect that we understand their problem is to ask good questions. We need to surface the specific challenges and concerns the prospect faces:

  • What is the problem they are trying to solve? And what are the specifics of their situation?
  • How have they tried to solve this problem in the past? What were the results?
  • What systems do they have to connect to?
  • How did they find out about us, and why are they looking at us for a solution? (This helps us understand the position we have in their brain.)
  • The competitors are they looking at.
  • If they have budget?

Then the sales person can talk about how we address those challenges, and schedule a demo to show how we address them.


Perhaps your product is a project management tool that’s particularly strong in resource management. The sales person might ask “How do you manage resources on your projects? Do the project managers have the authority to assign resources?”

Why use this question? Since we have product strengths in that area, we know in advance that a prospect with that problem will get a lot of value from our solution.

That means it’s not just a discovery question, it’s also a qualifying question. If the prospect does not have resource management problems, then maybe they aren’t a good fit for our product.

On the other hand, if the prospect is a good fit, then we’ve shown that we understand one important part of her problem.

Developing Good Discovery Questions

How do you come up with this list of good questions for sales people to ask?

As the product manager, you understand the types of problems your solution solves. You can use this knowledge to give sales good questions to get at those details. For example, if the sales person just knows that you have a project management solution, then they are only going to be able to ask about projects at a generic level. (For example, “How many projects do you have?”)

But with better sales enablement from product management, the sales person can know how to ask about “resource management in the context of projects.”

Using The Power Of Existing Customers

There’s one more piece of power information that you can provide for the sales people to use during a discovery call. This is examples of customers who have solved similar problems with your solution.

Let’s put this all together in a sample conversation.

Continuing the Project Management Example

We’ll take a look at the portion of the call related to resource management:

Sales person: “How are you managing the assignment of resources to projects? Do project managers have the authority to do that, or does that need to go through the resource’s managers?”

Prospect: “Oh, that’s definitely one of our big challenges right now. We have a weekly meeting with all the project managers and all the resource managers to get agreement on who is assigned to what project. We keep the data in a spreadsheet. The fact is the spreadsheet doesn’t always get updated, and sometimes there are multiple copies, so there’s lots of ‘I thought Jim was assigned to my project, it says so right here, but he thinks he’s working on something else!’ and that kind of thing. And of course those meetings just take a lot of time, which contributes to everyone’s frustration.”

Sales person: “You know, we hear that a lot. Our customers have found that our resource management capabilities have really helped them out in this area. Would you like my team to show you how we address resource management in a demo next week?”

Prospect: “Yes, that would be great. I’d love to get out from under these stupid meeting and have all that happening in a system of record. It would make my life much better!”

The sales person has established a lot in this interchange:

  • We understand her problem
  • We have customers who have solved that problem with our solution.
  • We can show how we solve this resource management challenge during a demo.
  • And the sales person has done a presumptive close on the next step of the sales process – the demo.

All in all, a lot of power in one little bit of discussion. And this can be done for several different key challenges during the discovery call. (For example, you might provide some questions to explore if the prospect has challenges presenting project status information to the executives.)

Three things you can do today

How do you make use of these ideas?

  1. Develop a list of criteria that make a prospect a good candidate for your solution: the types of problems they have, the scale of the problem, and so on. This list will be quite different for different types of products. For example, in project management one criterion might be: “They have a challenge with managing resource allocations to all the projects in the portfolio.”
  2. Turn the list of criteria into open-ended questions that are appropriate for a non-technical sales person to ask. For example, “How do you allocate resources to projects? Is that done by project managers or by resource managers?” Ideally, provide several followup questions as well. “Tell me about the meetings you have for resource allocations. How many people attend? How often? How are the decisions captured? What other resource management solutions have you tried?” Provide commentary responses about how existing customers have addressed these challenges with our solution. (Call this set of questions and responses a “scriptlet.”)
  3. Work regularly with the sales team to help them learn and use these questions in their discovery and qualification calls. Simply having three or four of these discovery question scriptlets will help them become significantly more effective. Work regularly with the sales engineering team (the people who demo) to make sure they can demonstrate how your solution solves these challenges.

Next Steps

Asking better discovery questions can make a big difference in sales effectiveness. But there’s one more step that will accelerate things even more. Using this information to present a killer demo that’s totally focused on the prospect’s problems can make a giant difference to your sales success. That’s the topic of the next post in this series on how product managers can help the sales organization beat quota on their products.


For more on the structure of good discovery calls, I highly recommend Dan Smith’s article on The Anatomy Of A Perfect Sales Call.

Improving lead quality - sales enablement

What Successful Companies Do To Get Better Leads

(This is the second post in my series about using product knowledge to create better sales enablement and jumpstart a repeatable sales process. Read the first post, on the overall topic.)

“I Need Better Leads!”

Does your salesforce complain “We don’t get enough leads from Marketing, and the leads we get aren’t any good?”

I’ve heard this a lot from sales teams.

But what does this complaint really mean? It simply means the leads they are getting don’t need or want your solution. They don’t have the problem your product solves, or they don’t have it badly enough to spend money to solve it.

If this is happening – and often it is – your company will have a hard time making the number of sales you need to be successful.

Marketing Uses Product Knowledge To Know Who To Target

The job of Marketing is to find people to buy your product. Marketing creates programs create awareness, interest, desire, and get prospects to take action. When prospects come in via this pipeline of marketing programs, they are handed over to Sales, who then continue the sales process.

So why isn’t Marketing finding the right people in their lead generation activities?

The fact is that Marketing doesn’t decide who to target. The fact is that Marketing doesn't decide who to target with their programs - defining the ideal customer and segment is #prodmgmt's responsibility! Click To Tweet

The definition of the ideal customer – the demographics, the characteristics, the industries – comes from Product Management.

  • Product Management does the research to determine that there is a problem that can be solved.
  • Product Management validates that there are enough people in the market who need your solution and who will buy it.

For Marketing to be effective, Product Management needs to communicate all this “market segment” data to Marketing. Sharing this knowledge with Marketing is a fundamental step in a successful sales enablement program.

You’d be surprised – or maybe not – how often Product Management does not communicate this information to Marketing effectively. And so Marketing does its best to find who they think might be good prospects. But without the knowledge that Product Management has, they are inevitably going to be off, often far enough off that the leads are not good.


Imagine your product is a project management tool. It has a lot of familiar project management features, and that’s what Marketing knows. So, they market your product to project managers of all types. That makes sense, right? They aren’t marketing to non-project managers.

But it turns out that not all project managers need a tool like yours. In fact many of them only need a much simpler and cheaper tool. Do you want that lower-priced segment in your lead pipeline? No, you do not. But if Marketing only knows “project management” that’s what you’re likely to get.

Improve sales performance by getting better leads

There are a lot of ways to improve your sales performance, but Step One is improving your lead quality.

And Step One of improving your lead quality is making sure that Marketing knows who to look for. And that’s up to Product Management.

Three Things You Can Do Today

Here are three things you can do to help Marketing find and collect the ideal prospects for your sales team.

(Note: There’s actually a step 0. Product Management must know the characteristics of your best prospects so that you can communicate them to Marketing.)

  1. Assess if you – Product Management – are giving Marketing the market segment information they need. This can include:
    • Their demographics (i.e., mid-sized company, number of projects, types of projects, how many project managers.
    • The specific types of problems they they face (heterogeneous projects that all require separate treatment, lots of conflicting information in their existing project management approaches, importance of having a cross-company or cross-enterprise dashboard or reporting, and so on).
    • How the other alternative solutions might be failing them.
  2. Review your company’s marketing message around your product. Is it crafted so that the people who have the specific problems you solve are moved to action? Is it crafted so that undesirable prospects are less likely to take action? Is it targeted toward the right segments (e.g., mid-sized companies with x projects and y project managers)?
  3. Step into a relationship with Marketing where you share this information continually. The expertise of Marketing is to find and attract leads who fit a desired profile or persona. It’s Product Management’s responsibility to define that profile.

Next Time

The next post in this series covers another critical component of sales enablement:

  • Make sure Sales knows how to qualify their leads effectively, discover the details of the prospect’s problem, and communicate those findings to the sales engineers.

Sales Team Missing Quota? It’s Not Their Fault

Successful customers, quality product, but bad sales

When I started as the Director of Product Management at my last company, they had a lot of successful and enthusiastic customers, a product that worked – although a bit long in the tooth – and a good lead pipeline.

But they had one big problem. The sales team was missing quota, every quarter!

The sales engineers brought me in to help them articulate the product story better, especially for the demo. When I drilled down, I realized the one big thing that was holding sales back. The sales process and demo were about us and our product, not about the prospect and their pains.

Sales is about your prospect, not about you and your product Click To Tweet

I realized that until I got there, the only product knowledge they were getting from the product team was lists of features and functions. Well, that clearly wasn’t working well, was it? Over the next quarter I helped sales fix their process by giving them better product knowledge.

In this post, I give you the components of a product knowledge package that will help your sales team make quota.

If you give sales the right information, everyone can make quota!

There’s nothing more frustrating to a sales person than knowing the prospect will benefit from the product, but having to pitch from the wrong information, or having to make the pitch up themselves. If all they have is a list of features, they are not going to be successful. And that means the company is not going to be successful.

If your product team doesn’t provide the right information to sales, your sales people can’t make quota Click To Tweet

We know that features and functions are there to solve problems. Those problems are what prospects care about.

The minimum viable product knowledge for making quota

The following four items are the minimum product knowledge the sales team requires:

  • The value proposition – who the product is for, the problem it solves, how it solves the problem (its features and functions), and why it’s superior to alternatives, both competitors and “business as usual.”
  • The market segments to attack – that is, the people who have the problems our product solves, along with specific qualifying questions to ensure we’re talking to the right people.
  • Product-specific objection handling guides.
  • Competitive information – key differentiators, hit sheets, pricing.

These are the foundation pieces of sales enablement. With a good value proposition and good qualifying questions, sales engineers can create a demo that converts. Marketing can create programs that pull the right prospects. And sales can position competitors out of the deal.


By improving the product knowledge shared from the product team, our sales and marketing results took off. The sales people now use their initial discovery calls to uncover the prospect’s key problems, using the improved qualifying questions. I coached the sales engineers to refocus their product demos to show how we tackle those problems specifically.

And these changes had an impact! After we implemented this new approach, sales started beating their quota. In fact, business was so good that the company was acquired by a competitor, who felt us nipping at their heels.

Three things you can do today

To sell your product successfully, the sales team must have more than a list of features. Here’s what you can do today to make your product more successful.

  1. Observe how the sales team sells your product – are they focused on the customer’s problems and how your product solves them? Or are they focused on the product’s features and functions?
  2. Make sure you provide the four key pieces of product knowledge: value proposition (including the problem you solve and why your solution is better than alternatives); segmentation and qualifying questions; objection handling guidance; and competitor information.
  3. Sign up for The Secret Product Manager Handbook mailing list to be sure to get the rest of the articles in this series on product knowledge and go to market. When you sign up with that link you’ll get a great free resource on how to get customers and prospects talking with open-ended questions.

“Compact, Immediately Useful, and Enough Depth” – The First Review

It’s exciting to see the first review of The Secret Product Manager Handbook! Geoff Anderson says:

“While it isn’t strictly targeted at newbies, or folks who are interested in joining the ranks of Product Management, it is both a great introduction, and a guide that even very experienced members of the Product Management community can find value in, even if it is just to re-focus them on the basics.”

I encourage to you visit Product Bistro, read the review, and check out some of Geoff’s other articles on product management and product marketing! You can also follow him on Twitter at @prodbistro.


Announcing The Secret Product Manager Handbook

I’m excited to announce The Secret Product Manager Handbook is available for pre-order!

When I started in product management, there were no classes, books, or online resources for product managers. I always wanted the “secret handbook” – so I wrote it. The Secret Product Manager Handbook is all the things I wish someone had told me.

I wrote a book for people like me (and you?)

I provide a simple yet powerful framework for thinking about product management. The process of finding and validating market problems, creating solutions to those problems, and taking the solutions to market. (Readers of this blog have seen this before, of course.)

To make it even shorter, “We find market problems, create solutions to the problems, and take the solutions to market.”

This captures the meaning of, for example, “we’re the intersection of business, technology, and user experience.” But it’s simple and clear enough that your parents can understand it.

Market problems are the underlying organizing principle

The core idea of the book is the focus on “market problems.” If you’re oriented to the market problem, a lot of other things take care of themselves. Or at least they are easier, or you get better results.

In fact, I saw a Pragmatic Marketing poll the other day. Most product managers say “discovering and validating market problems is our most important job as product managers.” At the same time, they complain “we don’t spend enough time discovering and validating market problems.”  We understand we should be doing it more, but we aren’t.

Contents and structure

A mockup of a physical version of The Secret Product Mananager Handbook, with a spiffy cover design.

The Secret Product Manager Handbook

The book is organized around this framework. The first section introduces the framework. And other useful information about product management as a discipline and practice.

The next three sections each focus on one component of the framework.

  • Finding and validating market problems.
  • Creating solutions to the problems.
  • Taking the solutions to market.

Throughout I provide concrete steps you can take to put the ideas into practice. (If you’ve heard my podcast or read my blog you might recognize those “three things you can do today to put these ideas into practice.” I got that from the great Brian Tracy, a fantastic business and self-improvement guru. I’ve listened to his audio programs for decades.)

I provide checklists and scorecards for assessing how you’re doing. It’s valuable to know there are obstacles to success, so in each section I list out key obstacles. And I give you ways to get around those obstacles.

To learn more

To learn more about The Secret Product Manager Handbook, check out the book trailer (inserted above, as well). Download a sample chapter. Or simply go ahead and pre-order. (The link on that page includes a nice little discount for pre-ordering.) And as with all book launches nowadays, there will be bonuses if you pre-order.


Get People Talking! How To Use Open-Ended Questions For Market Discovery

In my last post I talked about the importance of “talking to customers.” In that post I focused especially on what you do with the market discovery knowledge you get from customers once you found it. (The “product management system of record,” I called it.)

In this post I’ll be more to the point: How do you actually have these conversations? How do you structure the conversation so you get the information you need to know, and so the customer feels it’s worth their time?

Even if you aren’t (yet) an expert in your product, talking to customers one of the best ways to create value. It’s a great way to learn quickly about the relationship that customers have with your product if you are a new product manager, or new to the company.

No matter your experience level, the fundamental benefit is that customer conversations help you discover new problems your product could solve.

(Accompanying this post, I’ve created a “cheat sheet” with a list of good questions for customer conversations, and some techniques for using them. Click here to download the cheat sheet.)

Problem space

Up to a point, the more you know about the product and the space before these conversations, the better.

But even if you know the domain and the product well, it’s good to go into these conversations with a “beginner’s mind.” This helps you keep the conversation in “problem space,” not “solution space.” As experts and as technologists we love solution space – it’s where we get to do cool technical things. Even our customers like solution space.

In market discovery activities like talking with customers, we strive to stay in problem space – because as you know, our biggest and most important job as product managers is to discover and validate new problems we can solve.

Let’s say you have the opportunity to talk to a customer when you’re brand new to the company and you don’t know much at all about the product, the space, the domain, the customer problems. How would you initiate that conversation? How would you handle the inevitable questions about the product that you’ll get from a customer?

I’ll answer all these questions in the rest of this post.

A simple formula for customer conversations

The formula is simple. Introduce yourself, and set some expectations.

“I’m Nils, I’m a new product manager here at Acme. I’m excited to work with you and our other customers to help you create value. I’d love to ask you a few questions about how our product is working for you, and about your work in general.”

After that introduction, I start with something along the lines of

“Can you tell me what you do?”

People love to talk about themselves. Not only will you learn a lot, but they’ll actually like you more.

Two powerful phrases that will always help you in any customer conversation are:

  • “Tell me more.”
  • “And then what?”

The customer will probably start by giving a brief description of what they do. You have an immediate opportunity to ask, “Tell me more.”

At this point the customer knows you are interested enough to listen to their story. You can help them continue their story with “Tell me more” and “And then what?” Or you can take the conversation down other roads. For example, how they use your product.

Learning about your product

At some point, you might want to throw in something like,

“How does <our product> help you with that?”

Other good and interesting questions you can use, without knowing much about the product at all, are:

  • “What are some day-to-day things you do with <our product?>.”
  • “What are some things you do only periodically with <our product>, like at the end of a project, or at the end of a quarter?”

So that’s a first set of questions that will reveal a lot. I wouldn’t recommend going through this list of questions as though it were a questionnaire. At any moment the conversation can take an interesting turn, or you can take it deeper with “Tell me more about that.” Or “And then what happens?”

How to handle a product question

OK, here’s the big challenge – what if the customer asks you a question about the product you don’t know the answer to?

You know what? This is always a risk! Even after years of experience with a product, there will be areas where you are not the expert, even if as the product manager you are the most knowledgeable person on the team. So you’d handle this situation more or less the same way no matter your experience:

“Gee, that’s a great question. I don’t know the answer off the top of my head, but I know who to ask and I’ll get back to you immediately with some more detail. Can you tell me more about why you’re asking?”

Notice two things. First, I added an open-ended question to my response. The customer asked a technical question, but it probably arises from some problem the customer is experiencing. I want to know more about this problem, how serious it is, how urgent it is to solve, and so forth. Second, I made a commitment to get back to the customer immediately with an answer. If you show good faith and responsiveness by providing the customer with an answer right away, you’ll go even further to build your relationship with this person.

Well, there’s a third thing to notice: I didn’t say “I’m a newbie and I know nothing.” I can say that if I want to, if it will help my relationship with the customer, but I don’t have to admit how little I know.


Accompanying this post, I’ve created a “cheat sheet” with a list of good questions for customer conversations, and some techniques for using them. Click here to download the cheat sheet.

A sample conversation

Here’s a conversation (hypothetical) I might have with a customer. (The domain is project management.)

“Hi, I’m Nils, I’m a new product manager. Who are you and what do you do?”

“I’m Bob. My official title is Senior Project Manager, but I like to think of it as Senior Goat Rodeo Manager, ‘cause that’s what it’s often like around here!”

“Bob, great to meet you, I can’t wait to learn a lot more about goat rodeos and how you use our product to help you with those. Can you tell me a little more about the goat rodeos you manage?”

“OK, LOL – internally we don’t call them that, of course (even though that’s what they sometimes are). I work especially on IT projects, and on projects where IT is working with other departments. Things like putting in a new phone switch and phones, or rolling out the ERP system.”

“Oh, a new ERP system. That sounds like a big project. Can you tell me more about how that project worked?”

(Customer talks about it. You notice they don’t mention your product.)

Asking about our product

“Bob, did you use our product for that project?”

“No, darn it! We didn’t have your product when we started that project, and we did the whole thing with our old method. It was a mess.”

“How do you think it would have gone differently if you’d had our product?”

(Bob talks about the benefits of your product – this is gold, by the way.)

“Have you run another project since that’s comparable to the ERP project, but using our product?”

“Oh yes. And it’s so much better than what we had before. I mean, it’s like the goats are a little bit tamer now, if you know what I mean.”

“Can you tell me more about that?”

(Bob talks about some of the reasons he likes your product, and, most likely, some of the things he’d like it to do better.)

“Bob, you mentioned X (a big benefit he gets from your product). Can you tell me how having X has impacted your work?”

(Bob answers – this is going to be gold as well. He’s going to talk about how his work is more efficient, or how his work is better received, or higher quality, or whatever.)

“Bob, what would happen if you couldn’t do X with our product anymore?”

(The goal of this question, and you might want to be careful about asking it, is to get an emotional reaction to the feature and what it enables him to do.)

Customer conversations have overlapping benefits

This is one way this conversation could go, out of millions. It represents about ten minutes, at most, of an interaction. In the process of this conversation I’ve learned a lot:

  • The types of projects that at least one customer considers appropriate for my product.
  • Some specific words that my customers use about their work, and about my product and its benefits.
  • One more specific benefits they got by using my product over what they were using previously.
  • Perhaps some level of understanding of the emotional connection Bob has to my product and to the results that he’s getting with my product.
  • Ideas for improvements, based on the things that Bob feels the product could do better.

Bob described the benefits he’s getting from the product, in his own words (which can often be directly used in marketing and sales engagements).

I got insights into how the product could be improved from his perspective. And I started to create a relationship with Bob that will benefit both him and me into the future.

It will benefit him because he now knows that I’m interested in what he does, I understand better what he does, and I will probably take his interests into consideration when I prioritize features.

And it benefits me because I now have a customer who knows I’m interested in him and his opinions. I can go back to Bob in the future to get more of his ideas, and to validate my ideas and designs and new features with him.

You can guide the Market Discovery conversation

I structured this conversation as a combination of open-ended questions, requests for more information, and a few close-ended questions (“Did you use our product for the ERP project?”) to help determine if I could go down a certain path.

I started with the list of questions from above, but then, as I learned more from Bob, I was able to move into new areas (especially using “tell me more about that” variations). As a result, I have a great relationship with Bob the Goat Rodeo Manager, and I know about how at least some of our customers perceive the product.

Finding product gaps

There are a lot of other directions I could have taken the conversation. For example, if I were interested in finding new product opportunities, I might use a line of questions like one of the following:

“What do you miss about your old tool now that you are using our product?”

This could help me learn about product gaps and areas where current customers might be actively frustrated.

“Before you got our product you were mostly using spreadsheets for managing things like your ERP project. What are you still using spreadsheets for?”

(If Bob is still using spreadsheets for project management tasks, those would potentially be ripe opportunities for new product features. Or perhaps for me giving him guidance on how he could use our product for those parts of the process as well – maybe he just doesn’t know how to do it, or needs some training.)

Three things for you to do right now

  1. Create a set of questions for doing customer interviews about the topics you need to learn about, and practice them so you’re natural when talking to customers.
  2. Schedule interviews with your customers, even if you don’t know very much about the product yet!
  3. Practice using these questioning techniques not just on customers, but on co-workers in other departments, and even in your regular life. They are very powerful!

Closing notes

  • Two recent episodes of the All The Responsibility, None of The Authority podcast are also about asking questions and doing market discovery, so you might want to check them out.
  • Don’t forget to download the bonus list of questions that goes along with this post (and with the podcast episode).

Tell me in the comments about your memorable customer conversations. I’d love to hear about any funny or meaningful interactions you’ve had, and the insights you gained.

2 It's very difficult to find the signal - market problems - in the noise - our conversations with customers and prospects.

Visiting Customers? What?

Nothing Important Happens In The Office

We product managers are always told that we need to spend a lot of time with customers, and with the market, to create successful products. This advice, while good, is not actionable. It’s vague and aspirational. And, indeed, you might even ask “why is this good advice?”

It's very difficult to find the signal - market problems - in the noise - our conversations with customers and prospects.

It’s challenging to find the signal – market problems – in the noise – our conversations with customers and prospects.

In fact, there are a lot of questions:

  • What should you be doing with those customers when you visit them?
  • Why is this so good?
  • How do you do it?
  • How do you track that you’ve done it?
  • What do you do with what you’ve learned (if anything)?
  • How does spending time with customers and the market make you and the company more successful?

Without guidance on these questions it can be a paralyzing situation. And believe me, many product management organizations are paralyzed in this area. With the result that they tend not to spend much time doing it.

That’s a big problem. If you remember the Secret Product Management Framework, the fundamental thing we work with as product managers is market problems. And finding those market problems depends on what customers’ real issues are, the ones they will pay to solve.

Finding a previously unsolved, important customer problem can make you, and your company, a lot of money.

And you can’t just guess – that’s a sure road to failure. So you have to get out there.


Even if you are “going out there” are you doing it as effectively as you could be? To be successful, you need a strategy. And you need a methodology for making use of what you learn.

You need to talk to your customers, your prospects, your competitors’ customers, and even people who aren’t buying anything, but are like the people in your target market. What you’re going to do is ask them open-ended questions about what they do in their jobs, and about their frustrations, problems and challenges. (I say “jobs” but it could just be “life” as well!)

I have covered many techniques for how to do this in earlier blog posts, including links to other peoples’ articles.

But simply gathering all this information is not enough. The signal you get from the market is weak. It’s often via offhand remarks, or even observations that you make. These lead to further investigations and lines of questions. Then, with luck and more conversations, you may find you’ve discovered a real market problem you can solve.

Building a weak signal detector

We have to have a lot of these conversations to get enough signal, and even then, the signal has to get through our crowded brains to emerge. We PMs are cognitively overloaded – we all know that – so expecting weak signals to get through is a pretty high expectation.

So you can use use tools to enhance your cognition. (And I don’t mean Adderal!) Many of our knowledge-oriented tools are focused on improving the weaknesses of our cognition, like remembering things (all the to-do lists and GTD applications and wikis). Or organizing things (photo organizers, folders in your OS, tagging in Evernote, dropbox). Or helping to find patterns in a lot of data (big data, Excel charts, even search).

Well, you have all this data – all your conversations with customers – but you don’t have tools to help you winnow that data. You don’t have tools that are good at helping you find the “signal” in the noise of many customer conversations.

You May Have To Roll Your Own System of Record for Market Problems

That leaves you the option to “make your own.” By which I mean, figure out how to use the tools you do have at your disposal to enhance your cognition. This might be a spreadsheet, or a wiki page, or an Evernote notebook. Or a combination of any of these and many more options.

Because it’s not a purpose-built tool, it’s likely to require more manual work than you want. But, the return can be very high.

By the way, this is one reason methodologies like Strategyn’s ODI (also known as “Jobs To Be Done”) are so compelling. They actually give you a set of interview questions, and a form into which to put the answers. And they, amazingly but maybe not so amazingly, help people come up with new product ideas that succeed.

How Do You Do It? Find Out Next Time

I’ll continue this topic in the next article. In the meantime, you can check out my podcast episode on a “roll your own system of record” for some ideas. I have a few other posts you can check out as well.

I’d love to hear what you’re doing now to capture and analyze your customer conversations.


2 Should You Be A Product Manager?

Have you built something? Have you led a team?

Have you built something? Have you led a team?

Product management is a hot, hot profession right now. It’s one of the most important roles in a product company, especially in high tech. But is it right for you?

If you’re wondering about this, or want to scope yourself against a basic set of guidelines for product managers, this post is for you.

What I’m looking for in a new product manager

There are definitely some skills you should have – technical, communication, decision-making. And you should have a flexible mind, love uncertainty, crave a fast pace, and enjoy working with people.

But what I look for most is that you’ve made something, that you worked with people to do it, and that it solved someone’s problem.

What have you done?

One way to check if you’re ready: reflect on what you’ve already done in your career, or in school, or perhaps as a volunteer or in a high school job.

  • Have you built things, or worked with others to build things, that addressed someone else’s problem?
  • Have you led these teams in some way (ideally without authority, just by influence)?

For example, I worked with a graduating college student once whose resume said this about his senior project:

  • Redesigned shipping packaging for Hardy Diagnostics for their petri dishes.
  • Shipping testing for new designed packing products.
  • Assembled, built, and utilized machines for packaging design and shipment testing.

We spent some time talking about what he did, and it turned out he was underselling a bit.

He’d led a team. He had to validate the problem he was asked to solve was significant and worth solving. He had to test that the solution he and his team designed and implemented actually solved the problem effectively. And he had to ensure that his design could be manufactured on the customer’s existing machines.

The point is that he had done a limited version of product management in this project. He’d led a team, to create a solution, for someone else, that had market value. It didn’t show up that way on his original resume, but it was there.

I felt comfortable recommending product management to him as a potential career path.

We Like People Who Build Things

When I’m talking to someone who wants to get into product management – like when I coach young people on their resumes during their job search – I always explore these stories. How they built something, or worked with others to build something. How they made sure the thing they were building was worth building. How they got people to work with them. How they took the solution to market, perhaps. And how they validated the solution worked – that it solved the problem.

If a person doesn’t have some stories like this, I am suspicious they want to get into product management for the wrong reasons.

I Make Things, That’s My Job

And after you’ve been a product manager for a while we assume you have proven to yourself and others that you should be a product manager, that it’s the appropriate job for you. And at that point I start asking a whole different set of questions, of course!

How To Say “No” To A Feature Request

No (picture credit at the bottom)

Sometimes No Is The Right Answer

Can you talk to me about a time when you had to say no to a customer? Why did you have to say no? How did you handle it?

Customers often make feature requests that seem obvious on the surface, but which in fact are misguided or a bad idea. My goal is to be able to tell them that we won’t implement that feature, and have them thank me for that answer. I do that by leading them to make the decision themselves. This is a matter of asking the right questions in the right way.

Oh, That’s A Terrible Idea!

For example, let’s say your product is a project management tool. And one of your big features is being able to staff a project by role. For example, you can specify that the project will take two DBAs, three Developers, a Project Manager, and a Business Analyst. And you can say how long you need each of these, and even define when on the calendar they are needed.

That’s a very powerful capability. But one of the first things you think of when you look at it is, “Wouldn’t it be cool if I could use skills in addition to roles?” For example, some Developers know Java, and some know .Net. Our customers often asked for the ability to use skills, not just roles, to help them staff projects.

This feature request turns out to be a bad idea, and very difficult to implement in a usable way. So I used the following approach when I’d get that request.

Leading The Customer Along A Path

First, I’d acknowledge that this seems like a good idea, and that other customers have asked for this capability.

Then I say “I want to understand more about what you’re looking for.” It’s always a good idea to ask the customer this question, and the follow-on questions, whether or not the request is valuable.

The resulting conversation can head in several directions. One is that we actually can do what they need (which is often not what they ask for). This happens all the time: customers ask for features that already exist, or they are trying to solve a problem that’s already solved a different way.

You Can’t Handle The Truth

However, if they truly are looking for something new, as in this case, the next step is to drill down into how they expect that might work. For example, I always ask about how they expect to manage the association between skills and resources. Who maintains this information? How do you keep that relationship trustworthy? How will it be vetted? Does it capture enough information that it will be useful in allocating resources, etc.?

Usually by this point in the conversation the customer starts to hem and haw. It turns out that they don’t have a way to ensure the information is accurate over time. And as a result they also start to understand how supporting skills could actually be counterproductive if the data isn’t kept accurate.

Closing The Conversation

I’ll usually say at this point that we have considered this enhancement, but we also haven’t come up with a solution to make usable in real life. And that other customers agree as well that the cost of maintaining any model that was used for resourcing based on skills would likely break immediately. (In fact, for many of our customers just maintaining the role mapping for resources can be difficult to maintain.)

By the end of the conversation the customer typically admits that they don’t have a good use case for making this work. And we move on. Of course, I’m always gracious throughout this whole process. I’ll associate the customer with the enhancement request. And I’ll say that if we crack this nut, if we figure out how to make it work and make it valuable, it’s a common request and we’ll prioritize it along with all our other work.

What’s amazing is that the customer usually feels better about the product, and about me, at the end of this process. I just saved them a lot of headache (if we’d actually done their feature). And I made sure that my resources could continue to be focused on more valuable capabilities that they’d benefit from.

Leading The Customer To Say “No” Themselves

The steps are:

  1. Find out what the customer is really asking for – what’s the desired outcome behind the feature request?
  2. If you already solve it, then fantastic – you don’t have to say “No.”
  3. Otherwise, help the customer understand the implications of the enhancement – in the case of using skills for staffing, the implication is a huge overhead in maintaining data integrity, for which there is no good solution.
  4. Lead the customer to say “No” themselves.
  5. Make sure to capture the enhancement anyway, and promise to reconsider if a good solution presents itself.

What If It’s Not A Terrible Idea?

Of course, this is the case where it’s an enhancement request that you don’t want to do and that isn’t a good idea anyway. It’s a different process if the enhancement is a good idea, but you are just unable to prioritize it highly enough to replace something else on the roadmap. I’ll do another article on that soon.

(Image “No” copyright (c) 2014 Henry Burrows, Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic – CC BY-SA 2.0

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