January 15, 2021

6 Things You Should Never Say to a Product Manager

by Brian de Haaff

I often write that product managers have the greatest job in the world. And it is true. You get to set a vision for your product, define what will be built, and evaluate new ideas along the way. And you have the privilege of working with lots of different teams in order to get it all done. It is a big role with lots of responsibility, but that is part of what makes it so exciting. And it pays you well.

You are trusted to solve real problems for real people — product managers get to build the future.

But because you are doing work that impacts so many, it is easy for people to misunderstand the core of your role. The details of what a product manager does can also vary from company to company. And with many leaders pushing (rightly so) for a product mindset across the organization, everyone feels free to critique product decisions. In some ways, this is good because more voices can lead to more creative solutions.

It also means you might hear comments that make you pause and think, "Did you really just say that?"

Now, I am not saying that folks outside of product do not offer an important perspective. You need input from different teams to help you see the full picture — especially customer-facing groups who have insights to share. But your job is to evaluate everything through the lens of what your goals are for your product. So you have to take a deep breath and avoid internalizing the sideways comments that come your way.

And product managers are often on the receiving end of some doozies. I know because I led product early in my career and speak with customers who use our roadmap software every day. When I was thinking about writing this blog post, I knew just who to ask — Aha! Customer Success teammates who are all former product managers. Here are some of the off-the-mark comments they have heard in past roles, along with my reaction:

"The only way to learn how to be a good product manager is on the job.”

You can certainly learn a lot on the job. But you could say that about nearly any professional. And if this was really true, there would not be product management tracks in MBA programs today or any advanced certification classes available.

"The customer told me this is too expensive."

Let me guess — this complaint is from a frustrated salesperson. But as you know, there are many layers to the "too expensive" trope. Is it that the customer cannot afford to pay? Is your product more expensive than others on the market? Or do they simply think it is not worth the price? There is a value judgment from the customer behind the sticker shock that is worth exploring.

“You should just add more engineers so the feature will ship faster.”

If only it were that simple. More engineers can help sometimes. But only if lack of development resources is the reason you are not making progress. If not, adding more people could stall things out entirely as people get up to speed or trip over each other's work.

“I told the customer we would deliver that shortly.”

Wonderful. Every product manager loves to hear that a customer has been promised something without any input from the product team. This one is particularly irritating because it puts you in a no-win scenario. You either disappoint your customer or put your team in an impossible situation — pivoting at the cost of something else.

"You need to be technical to understand that."

No one likes to be underestimated. But assumptions aside, dismissive remarks like this will hurt any relationship. I always tell product managers to brush it off and keep asking questions. Or flip it around and ask the person to explain the situation to you in a different way. Your job is to deliver value to customers and the organization — not to understand how every technical feature works.

"Did you just make that up?"

Not really. You have a vision for your product and goals. And people always want to tell you what they think you should build next. The hard part is prioritizing and choosing which ideas will deliver the most value to customers and to the business.

The best thing you can do when your colleagues say the "wrong" thing is to not take it personally.

Remember that your ultimate goal is to delight customers and deliver meaningful results for the company. So when you hear these off-base comments, try to understand where they come from. Keep strategy and the needs of your customers at the center of your response. And if you get any really outlandish comments — send them my way.

Reverse course: What should a product manager never say?

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Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 roadmap software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the adventure of living a meaningful life.

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