What is a Product Manager?
If you've asked the question, "what is a product manager?," find out now.
By Jennifer deJong
March 12, 2009
Job postings for product managers are peppered with phrases like “customer-centric,” “consensus-builder” and “fluid environment” — requirements that don’t easily translate into the concrete abilities and experiences needed to succeed in the product manager role. Despite being one of the most sought-after positions, the skill set needed for this position is surprisingly difficult to define.
What Exactly Is Product Management?
Product management is neither R&D nor sales, but the intersection of making it and selling it, says Sam Knox, a former product manager at AT&T Interchange and other high tech firms. Even though you may be “responsible for everything and have authority over no one,” it’s where the most interesting work is happening, he says.
As the voice of the customer, product managers lead the process of maintaining and improving products, and developing new ones. Typically, they bear profit-and-loss responsibility for the product, carrying out tasks such as forecasting sales, training the sales team, and gathering, interpreting and relaying customer feedback to engineering.
“I loved that no two days were the same,” says Bob Viney, recalling his years as brand manager for Proctor & Gamble’s Tide laundry detergent, where four product managers reported to him. “Monday, you’re out at a customer site; Tuesday, at the advertising agency in New York; Wednesday, with finance guys,” says Viney, now vice president of technology firm Exchange Solutions Inc.
The Ripple Effect
Every action a product manager takes ripples through the company and beyond, affecting sales, manufacturing, customers and partners. Managing these day-to-day interactions and understanding how they may affect others is central to a product manager’s — and the product’s — success.
“If your sales forecast is too high, you have inventory building up, negatively impacting cash flow,” says John Pantano, former product marketing manager for Philips Medical Patient Monitoring Division. “If it’s is too low, customers are left waiting, which jeopardizes sales.”
Managing Without Authority
Directing interactions effectively is a survival strategy. If product managers don’t guard their time, no one else will. “When the sales guys call me to help them configure things for a customer, it can take the entire day,” says Karin Monsler, a product manager at Avid Technology Inc., which sells digital systems to media firms.
Her survival strategy? She invests time up-front, transferring product know-how to Avid’s consultants, who, in turn, help the sales team.
When formal reporting structures are absent, product managers need to earn their peers’ respect to get things done. “You do that by becoming an expert,” says Thomas Shoup, a former product manager for Hewlett-Packard’s medical device business. But understanding the boundaries of your expertise is key, he adds, recalling an incident when a product manager insisted on deciding if the image quality of a HP medical device under development was good enough. “You have to take it out and get a doctor’s opinion,” he said.
As chief advocates for their products, product managers often assume a cheerleading role. In 2001, as Philips readied a new high-end patient monitoring device, the 1995 model looked like the odd man out, recalls Pantano. Convinced the older product still had value, a product manager on Pantano’s team rejuvenated the older device with a touch-screen interface and taught the sales force how to sell it.
“When the new high-end unit came out, the older model didn’t suffer,” says Pantano. “I give the product manager a lot of credit for that. Energizing the sales force is a high-level skill.”
This article originally appeared on Monster.com