Product Manager Beware: Your Roadmap Is Confusing Customers
March 3, 2017

Product Manager Beware: Your Roadmap Is Confusing Customers

by Ron Yang

“What are you planning to deliver in the second half of the year?” We were wrapping up a meeting with our customer advisory group when someone asked me this question. As a product manager, I should have known how to answer. Unfortunately, I caused more confusion than good. Here is what happened.

It was early in my career and I was working on a SaaS application in the education space. I was eager to share the future of our product, so I confidently pulled up a detailed technical roadmap and dove into the weeds. I talked about our plans to upgrade our billing platform, increase our vendor services platform, and make architecture improvements.

The response? Crickets. I looked around the room and saw confused faces staring right back at me.

I immediately realized my mistake. I shared the wrong type of roadmap view — too focused on technology and not enough on the benefits to customers. I did not communicate our product plans in a way that customers would understand or appreciate. It was classic techno-babble.

So, how should product managers talk about their roadmap in terms that will light up customers’ faces? Well, it starts with truly knowing your customers — who they are and what they care about. Then, choosing the right roadmap view to present.

To avoid confusion and blank stares, here are four tips for presenting your product roadmap to customers:

Be bold You need to be confident and prepared to answer “why” and “why not” with explanations that balance customer expectations with company imperatives. Share what you plan to do and how you made your prioritization decisions. Explain how your decisions were made and what goals they serve. That way, customers will better understand why you may not be working on a feature they requested.

Talk benefits Customers care about the utility and the experience of using your product, so explain how new functionality and changes will benefit them. Translate your company’s high-level goals and initiatives to customers by communicating how these goals will help you better serve them. For example, I could have made the vendor services platform resonate by calling out the resulting benefit of a larger marketplace with more diverse offerings.

Embrace emotion This one is not about you, the product manager — it’s about being open to your customers’ visceral reactions and feedback. While you need to be bold with your rationale, you also need to be humble. Go into your presentation with openness about what they may think. And if their response is passionate, but not positive? That is good news! It means your customers care, so try to be receptive to that emotional response.

Do not deceive And this one should be obvious. But in your earnest appeal to make customers happy, it may be tempting to exaggerate. However, you should not promise more than you can deliver. Saying no is hard but it sets realistic expectations — which earns trust. Anything else only undermines your credibility.

Yes, you want to build a brilliant product plan. But product managers also need to be aware of how that plan will be received by the intended audience.

That requires presenting value and being truthful — with yourself and your customers. Because if you cannot find ways to connect, you will find it hard to get people excited about what’s coming. So focus on transparency, listening closely, specific examples, and giving an honest presentation.

What other tips do you have for presenting roadmaps to customers?

Ron Yang

Ron Yang

Ron builds lovable products. He was the vice president of product management and UX at Aha! — the world’s #1 product development software. Ron has more than 15 years of experience in entrepreneurship and leading product teams. Previously, Ron founded and sold his own company and has been on the founding team of multiple venture-backed companies.

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