Key Nuances Of Enterprise Product Management

SVP, Head of Product at Fidelity Investments.

Let’s say you are a product manager for enterprise products, whether B2B or B2B2C. Your sales leader asks for your long-term product direction and roadmap to respond to a large request for proposal (RFP) within one to two weeks. Does that make you feel uncomfortable? Do you scramble to respond? Do you worry about reconciling your response with the short-term, iterative approach you are trained to follow as part of many product management playbooks or “agile” methodology? Do you worry that this large prospect may negatively impact the roadmap that you carefully crafted to solve your end users’ needs? If yes, please read on.

Product management is a relatively new discipline. With the success of so many consumer products in the past decade, the product management playbook and agile software development are ubiquitous. When I interact with product managers across industries, it is clear that they understand the playbook well, especially how to innovate, assemble happy teams, test, iterate, learn, deliver value in an agile manner, achieve product-market fit, grow, scale and so on.

However, it is a risky proposition to blindly apply the consumer product playbook for enterprise products. But by combining most aspects of consumer product and agile playbooks with key aspects of the enterprise world, product leaders and managers can drive tremendous success. Having spent 15 to 20 years of my career in building products and leading large product organizations in B2B or B2B2C settings, I will share two key nuances of enterprise product management.

1. Balancing The Storytelling Of Long-Term Product Direction With Short-Term Iterative Delivery

Agile product development, iterative delivery, short-term planning, quick-to-market deployment, testing and learning are must-haves today and are amazing improvements compared to how we developed products previously. You should fully embrace this approach. However, falling too much in love with the near-term iterative delivery approach may not be fully compatible with longer planning and sales cycles of enterprise customers and partners.

If not approached well, it may create friction between enterprise customers and sales, relationship management and customer success teams instead of collaboration. Enterprise customers typically purchase products with five or more years of commitment in mind. A typical purchasing and implementation cycle can range from six months to two years. It is natural for them to ask, “How will the product evolve over the next two to five years?”

Consider the above example. As part of the RFP, a large prospect asks for the long-term product direction, and the RFP is due in one to two weeks. This scenario is very common with enterprise products. Without a relatively well-defined, long-term product direction, either you will struggle to respond competitively, or you will craft something half-baked and be stuck with the half-baked direction and commitment that may not be aligned with the long-term product strategy.

What is worse, without a defined long-term product direction set by the product organization, the sales team or another team may do it in a hasty manner to satisfy the market need. In that case, who is setting the product direction?

Thus, the pragmatic solution is to have both a well-articulated story of the long-term product direction and a well-defined short- or medium-term roadmap. Communicate to your customers and internal stakeholders that the long-term vision is directional—whereas the short-term roadmap is much more baked—and establish a culture of flexibility when it comes to details of the long-term plan.

Moreover, for setting a long-term direction, approach it as a team sport. Involve your customers, sales, relationship management, operations, technology, marketing and design teams in the process. The most important aspect of communicating long-term direction is storytelling. It is not a list and timeline of your features and capabilities. Rather, it is a well-articulated story.

2. Balancing The Needs Of Users And Buyers

It is typical that the buyers of a product are not the users. For example, the buyer may be the head of a department, but the users are the staff members in the department or employees of the company. This creates unique dynamics for product managers to consider.

You should listen to the voice of the users, buyers and the market. User research is always critical, but spend equal amounts of time on researching the buyer, the enterprise and what motivates them. Pay attention to what your largest customers and prospects want, as well as market dynamics, such as what your competition is pitching, the policy environment or upcoming regulations.

It is a common scenario to lose a deal because a competitor pitched nothing more than a dream and convinced the customer to buy without the existence of realized products or capabilities. In the enterprise world, you can have great underlying technology and superior user experience but still lose to a competitor who is selling the future.

Releasing product features quickly and consistently usually matters more to your users than to your buyers. Telling a great story of capabilities launched or future product direction matters more to the buyers. Do both based on your specific audience.

It is relatively easy to apply analytics, personalization and artificial intelligence to user experience. Do that well. But it can be more difficult to apply the same level of sophisticated tools to buyer experience. Thus, do not overdo it. Talking to prospects and existing customers, as well as collaborating with sales, relationship management and operations teams is more important than applying tools.

Users have wishes and wants, but buyers have expectations and demands. If you do not have a long-term product direction, you will likely get into the build trap by treating customer demand for feature requests as your product roadmap and letting a handful of customers set your product direction in a tactical manner.

The beauty of enterprise product management is that it is relatively hard, but the impact is sustainable. Consider the above nuances and be a pragmatist. The silver lining is that once you acquire your customers, they are less price-sensitive and less likely to switch as long as you continue to offer quality products and services. They will likely be with you for a long time.

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