Product Managers are often told (or at least tell themselves) that they are the “CEOs of Product.” While they may not have the overarching authority of the C-Suite, a successful Product Manager is not wrong to make such a humblebrag.
Like a CEO, a successful Product Manager must have diverse set of necessary competencies. As the designated product-driver, it’s often essential that a PM has technical skills that include everything from prototyping and conducting A/B experiments to running analytics and understanding how to code (even at a base level). But, like a CEO, a PM must also master non-technical – but no less challenging – skills in order to ensure their product’s (and company’s) success.
The Top 11 Non-Technical Product Management Skills
1. Business Acumen
While this might seem like a broad topic (and it is), having business acumen boils down to thinking like a savvy business person with a high-level interest in the overall success of your company.
“Product management is a general management job, and as such it requires a minimum level of expertise in finance, marketing, operations management, and strategy,” says Zach Mortensen of ZM Advisors. “Influencing the senior-most leaders in a company requires fluency in these business languages coupled with confidence and executive presence.”
This means thinking like an executive and making decisions based on achieving criteria the company has established as critical, not just acting in the best interest of your particular product’s short-term success.
“It is a product development manager’s most basic responsibility (and primary goal) to maximize a company’s value by way of marketable and profitable products. An active understanding of business in order to achieve this goal is highly essential,” says Mark Silver of SpecTechUlar. “A successful manager will have a [healthy] obsession with optimizing products lines to ensure that the business value of your company soars.”
As a product manager, you might be in charge of the product, but you’re seldom in charge of the people you need to make that product (not to mention the ones you need to approve, market, sell, or support your product). That means you must effectively convince them to do the things you want done, which is much easier when you approach these interactions as negotiations.
Says Daniel Elizalde of Stem, Inc. on What it Takes to Be a Great Product Leader:
“Negotiations are just conversations. Every time you talk to Sales about why they can’t have a feature, you are negotiating. When you show the roadmap to your Executive team and explain why some features are not going into the release, you are negotiating. The trick is to let go of the idea that one person wins and the other one loses. It’s not a zero-sum game. The best negotiations aim for a win-win outcome. Very few people are born expert negotiators. Like anything else, negotiation is a learned skill.”
When you’re confident you’ve already figured out the best thing to do and the best way to do it, negotiating may feel like you’re taking a step backward by reopening an issue that’s already decided in your mind. But switching from dictator to partner mode is critical to being viewed as a leader.
“Recognizing no two humans look at the same picture and see the same thing is an important first step in understanding the need for you to develop your diplomatic skills,” says Art Petty of the Art Petty Group. “In today’s world, developing a communication style that creates interest and fosters respect is essential for success. Diplomatic skills to manage upwards, to manage across, and to manage the generations and the various cultures via distributed teams are skills that help the product manager quickly move beyond a mid-level role.”
In concert with a product manager’s ability to negotiate, persuading others to align with your decisions (or at least not prevent you from acting on them) is another critical skill to develop and utilize.
“As the owner of the product requirements, she certainly can influence many aspects of the product through that mechanism, but the product manager quickly finds that there are many decisions that she does not own but which impact her product. For these, she must use her persuasive skills,” says Martin Cagan of the Silicon Valley Product Group. “The good product manager develops and maintains strong relationships with the members of the team by mutual earned respect and her ability to persuade with facts, logic, enthusiasm and a proven track record.”
Negotiation and persuasion are skills that you will primarily exercise internally. In contrast, you’ll need to flex your evangelism muscles both internally and externally in order to aggregate resources, secure funding, and create enthusiasm in your target market.
Being a product evangelist demands that you articulate the benefits and promises of your solution in a way that goes far beyond feature lists. It requires that you embrace your customers’ particular challenges and demonstrate how your product addresses their needs in a way that shows rather than sells. This means you must be as fluent in customer needs as you are in your product’s capabilities. You’re not pitching — you’re telling a relatable story.
5. Communication: Written, Verbal, and Nonverbal
Given that you’ll be training people on your product, evangelizing it, negotiating decisions, interfacing between teams, and detailing engineering directions, fluency in skillful communication is necessary. Written, verbal, and nonverbal language are all communication skills you must master to gain credibility as an effective and trustworthy leader.
You should know how to be clear, concise, and direct – Communication 101. You should also know how to communicate your objective and justify your and other teams’ decisions with data or empirical evidence so that others can better understand and trust your insight. Make sure you genuinely know what you’re talking about – being a slick communicator isn’t a sustainable substitute for hot air.
Perhaps most important is the capacity to approach conversations with a genuine interest in not just sharing but learning from others, even when that means hearing dissenting opinions. This “listening” includes quietly appreciating and noticing how people are interacting and responding nonverbally: Are they present? Questioning something silently? (A word of caution: if it seems like you’re overthinking it, walk it back.) You’ll gain more, align more, and even have a better shot at success when you’re actively listening as much as you are speaking or writing.
6. Legal Issues and Contracts
While no one expects you to add “In-House Counsel” to the many hats you wear as a product manager, you can also add some value in this department.
You should be able to review agreements and contracts and understand what it is your company is agreeing to (or what you’re asking your customers/partners to agree to). This is particularly important if there are financial ramifications to the contract’s terms, such as volume-based pricing or fees that could be a gotcha for customers or bankrupt your company if things take off…or don’t.
Every product manager should be able to sell their product. This doesn’t mean that you can cold call your way to a meeting with decision makers, create a fantastic inbound marketing campaign, or close a six-figure deal and come back to the office with a purchase order.
It does mean that if someone puts you in a room with a legitimate prospect that you can 1. sell the merits of your solution, 2. relate to your potential customer’s perspective, 3. address their questions (both about your product’s functionality and how it stacks up to alternative solutions), and 4. explain, defend, and justify your pricing. You can also run through the customization options, address service and support concerns, and walk through configuration and installation…and you can do it better than any of your salespeople.
It’s your product, you own it, and you should know it better than anyone else (except maybe customer service). When there’s a big opportunity, sales may want to call in a product expert, and you should be ready, willing, and excited to not only attend that meeting but take it over. In a smaller organization, you might be the only one in that room and should feel comfortable pitching your product and hammering out a deal.
Not only must new customers be trained on how to use your product, but you’ll also need to educate your sales team, channel partners, customer support, and account management. As the Product Manager, you should be the best teacher for the job.
Talking up the product’s “wow” factor is essential to a demo, but make sure to walk people through the points that may be confusing (and even privately annoy you). Go slowly, and anticipate any questions that may be asked.
Effective training is key to your product’s success. If your customers don’t know how to use it, they won’t value it. If your salespeople and channel partners don’t understand it, they won’t be able to sell it. If your support team doesn’t get it, they’ll be escalating to engineering (or you), distracting everyone from working on anything new.
9. Customer Advocacy
Along with Customer Support and Account Management, product managers are the voice of the customer within the organization. You’ll need to be your customers’ champion and fight for the resources and prioritization to address their concerns.
This skill relies on using real customer data and feedback to conquer the “we know what’s best for our customers” mindset that can permeate an organization. If you truly believe a customer request should be honored, you’ll have to articulate their/your position well and fight for it.
10. Competitive Intelligence
Regardless of how unique and novel your product may be, you have competitors. You may not be in direct competition, but you’re both angling for your potential customers’ attention and their wallets. Not only should you follow what your competitors are up to so you can compete with them in sales, there’s probably also a thing or two you can learn from them, no matter how humbling it is to admit.
Says Martin Cagan, “The natural tendency of most product managers is to discount the competitor’s successes, and to overvalue their weaknesses, just as we often do the reverse for our own products…You must evaluate the product from the perspective of the product’s target customer, which you are likely not…If you are not yet deeply knowledgeable about your target customer and market, you can learn a great deal from doing usability testing on your competitor’s products.”
Pro-tip: Use our recent article on conducting an ideal usability test and apply the advice to both your own and competitor products for comparison. (Ingenious, no?)
11. Domain/Industry Knowledge
Are you trying to make a killing in the healthcare industry? Building a business by selling to construction firms? Shooting for military contracts? No matter which industry (or industries) your product is targeting, you can always learn more about what’s happening in the world of your customers.
Immerse yourself in your customers’ worlds. Know what’s trending in their social media circles and pay more attention to interest rates, the price of oil, FDA approvals, or whatever moves the needle in their universe.
Understanding your customers’ motivations, fears, worries and environment is essential to building solutions that truly meet their needs. It’s also an incomparable tool for connecting with them at a non-superficial level during interviews, account reviews, and sales calls.