3 Critical Skills Preventing You From Becoming a Great Product Manager
We often hear the old adage, “forget your weaknesses, play to your strengths!” when talking about the fastest way to get ahead in your career.
After all, your strengths are your competitive advantage. It is easier and more enjoyable to work on skills you are already good at and know you can become great at. However, when it comes to a career in Product Management, just focusing on strengths is not going to cut it. Product managers must think strategically about their skill sets and address their weakest areas to give their products the best chance of success. This article will focus on the three weakest skill areas 280 Group uncovered across over 1650 product managers in our Product Management Skills – Benchmark Report: Competitive Analysis, Pricing, and End of Life. We will explain why these three skills are important to product managers and offer some tips to improve.
Since every product manager is different, we encourage you to take the assessment here to identify your own strengths and weaknesses and to start thinking strategically about your career.
Why Improve on Weaknesses?
Before we talk about the three weakest skill areas, we will first start with the benefits: what is in it for you? Here are two reasons why you may want to focus on improving weaker skill areas.
Knowledge is Power
When we seek out product feedback from our customers, we focus on the negative experiences—the pain points. Negative feedback offers the best opportunity to delight our customers. When products successfully address pain points, customers show their appreciation by giving great reviews, referrals, and even repeat business. Similarly, there is real power in understanding the weakest skills typical of product managers with your same level of experience. When product managers under-perform in key skill areas, their teams and products suffer. Understanding and improving upon common points of failure will help you stand out against your peers. Your team will reward you with great reviews, increased confidence, more commitment to the product. Your management will reward you with better performance reviews and ultimately career advancement.
Requirement for Career Progression
Once we identified the weakest skills from our survey, we decided to find out how these skill areas differed over a product manager’s career. When we compared the scores for the weakest areas between product managers early in their career to Directors and VPs of Product Management, we saw that the bottom three skills saw the most improvement. In other words, if you are looking to make a career in product management, and want to be a Director or VP someday, then you must learn how to be good at these three skill areas. You will be expected to be great at them as you progress in your career.
How to Improve as a Product Manager
Now let’s take a look at the three weakest skill sets, one by one. Let’s start with a “job description” style definition of the skill set for each one.
Continuously updates knowledge of competitors and competitive factors, works closely with sales and marketing on competitive assessment, and ably predicts competitor moves.
We were surprised to find Competitive Analysis on the list of weaker skills. As a product manager, you are responsible for understanding the competitive landscape. Conducting Competitive Analysis and setting the competitive strategy is integral to achieving product success and tuning your marketing efforts. Moreover, it is your job to think through the long term and anticipate competitive moves.
Some issues your team may face if their product manager is weak in conducting Competitive Analysis:
- Lack of great marketing collateral that highlights your product positioning
- Lower close rate against competition from salespeople unable to articulate differentiation
- Poor prioritization of features from a lack of understanding customer needs and wants
- Product and possible company failure from not anticipating competitive moves
Ways to improve:
- Practice: Identify a few common tools and frameworks that you would like to be better at (SWOT, Porter’s 5 Forces, company profiling, feature comparison matrices). Create a template of each framework and fill it out based on real market research. Setup a recurring calendar event to set aside time to research competitors and update your frameworks on a regular cadence. Find a peer who can help you think through each analysis and test your assumptions.
- Learn from others: Identify a few colleagues from marketing and sales and take them out to lunch. Learn where the competitive gaps are from their perspective. If your colleagues are more experienced and are willing to teach you, they may be great sources of mentorship.
- Stay informed: Create great habits to stay informed on your competition. Make sure you have set Google Alerts for key competitors and important keywords. If you have an Indeed account, set alerts for your competition there as well. You may be able to get information two-fold: both on how your competition is hiring, and what projects their former employees were working on and list on their resumes.
Resource Tip: What is Market Research and Competitive Analysis?
Drives pricing decisions based upon strategic opportunities/goals of the product and market context.
Pricing is hard and don’t we know it! Unless you are selling a commodity product which has a market price, setting the “perfect” price may feel like an impossible task. However, there are plenty of tools and techniques that will help you set the right price for your product or service. The key here is to learn how to harness good data to inform your Pricing strategy, and not be afraid to experiment.
Some issues your team may face with poor Pricing strategy:
- Low sales (duh!)
- Low profitability
- Competitors taking market share
- Issues with resellers/distributors
Ways to improve:
- Be Strategic: A good pricing strategy first starts with understanding your overall product strategy and how it fits into your corporate goals such as revenue targets and brand identity. If your brand strategy is to target a premium market, it can be more dangerous to your product’s success to be priced too low. If your company’s goal is to take market share from an incumbent, then setting a low price may help accomplish that goal. What’s most important here is learning first to think strategically about your product and having your product’s price reflect that strategy.
- Understand the different dimensions of Customer Value: Pricing data can be hard to get, particularly for a new product. However, there are ways to estimate how customers value the various features and benefits of your product. For example, perhaps your product makes it less time consuming for your customer to finish a task. Possible benefits are cost/time saving, faster production, ease of use, etc. Your product’s price should include the value of each of these benefits from the customer’s perspective. If you’re able to work with a great market research expert, then we recommend conducting a conjoint analysis, which is a survey that reveals customer preference by asking participants to choose between and thereby assign a value to different features. When done well, conjoint analysis can identify the most important features/benefits for your customer. Price accordingly.
- Work with Finance and Operations: If you have a short sales cycle, like in retail, you may have the luxury of experimenting with pricing. However, if you are selling to enterprise customers with long sales cycles, it will be difficult to reset the price. Talk to members of your finance team to understand the operating costs of the business so you don’t set the price too low. Talk to members of your operations and customer service teams to understand the value of the whole product, including additional services, so you can better articulate your products’ benefits in your marketing materials to support a higher price point.
Resource Tip: What are Product Pricing Strategies?
End of Life
Understands the issues surrounding end-of-life decisions and can construct an effective end-of-life plan that minimizes negative client/customer impact.
After all the work product managers put into making products successful, planning for their End of Life is particularly difficult. However, practicing great End of Life skills can really set you apart from your peers! Done properly, retiring a product can lead to better strategic investments in new products, revenue and profitability growth, and (surprise!) happy and loyal customers.
Some issues your team may face with a weak End of Life plan:
- Negative feedback from customers and channel partners
- Possible legal liability from incorrectly canceling a product
- Wasted dollars with continued support of unprofitable products
We know not many product managers early in their career have the opportunity to retire a product. This may contribute to why this skill is weak: a lack of practice.
Ways to improve:
- Standardize the process and start with your current products: Identify and learn some best practices for properly retiring products. Work on a process you can follow and practice by crafting a retirement plan as early as when you start creating a business case for your product. Creating a standardized process for retiring products and practicing will force you to think through and predict the impact on different stakeholders. This way when you actually have to do it, you already know how!
- Find a mentor: One way to learn how to End of Life a product faster is to identify a more experienced product manager to learn from. If you have a mentor, ask them for stories on how they have retired products before. Learn from their mistakes and their successes. Not only will you be more prepared to retire products in the future, but you will already have a mentor who can help you avoid common pitfalls.
Resource Tip: What is a Product End of Life (EOL) Plan?
One of the most powerful insights from our Benchmark report has been that product managers are continuous learners. Skill sets improved consistently over the product management career—without any significant drop offs in learning. It makes sense—products are complicated and their competitive and customer context is always changing. The skill requirements to do the job well are high—and that is what makes product management both an exciting and challenging career choice. If you are just starting out or have been a product manager for 20 years, there is always more to learn! Reading this article is a start and taking your own Personal Skills Assessment is an even better one. Once you identify your own areas for improvement, you can start thinking more strategically about your career. Luckily, there is a wealth of information on product management that you can start taking advantage of today. Sign up to our newsletter and stay informed by reading our blog, attending webinars, and download these helpful, free resources. And most important—stay curious!
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About the Author
CEO of 280 Group
Rina is the CEO of 280 Group. She began her career at McKinsey & Company as an analyst on the credit portfolio team, offering trading recommendations to hedge against credit and interest rate exposure. She then joined MetLife’s Global Leadership Development Program, focusing on employee recognition programs and removing roadblocks to support intrapreneurship in the Latin America Office of Innovation. Rina joined 280 Group with a focus on bringing transformative change to organizations by arming product people with the right tools and skills to do great product management. Her job running the company at 280 Group is made easy with an amazing team aligned on continuous learning and development and determined to go above and beyond to always delight their clients.
280 Group is the world’s leading Product Management training and consulting firm. We help companies and individuals do GREAT Product Management and Product Marketing using our Optimal Product Process™.