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Product management 101: what a Product Manager (PM) needs to succeed

August 20, 2019 by Luke Vella

“Product managers work with their peers to build products that people love.”
This is a very broad statement. As broad as the role responsibilities itself. And probably why I get so many questions along the lines of ‘So, what does a PM actually do?’

I’ve been a PM at Hotjar since May 2018, and I have plenty of answers to that question. In this guide, I'll explain exactly what product management is and why it's important. I'll also outline what product managers do and how to secure this kind of role at a company. Finally, I'll cover a few product management tips and tools you can use to excel in this type of role.

We have a lot to get to, so let's get started!

Table of contents

What is product management?

Product management is the process of developing, distributing, and maintaining a product.

The process is based on two key dynamics: a deep understanding of the customers the product is for and proper, end-to-end knowledge of how the business producing said product operates.

Why you need product management

Too often, organizations without product managers focus on specific goals without considering the entire business and the needs of its customers. Effective product management allows companies to craft and build upon one core strategy.

luke-product-manager-hotjar.jpg
This is me (right) pondering about our next product steps

Let's pretend we both work for an up-and-coming SaaS company. I'm a part of the development team and spend my days coding to my heart's content. You are a marketer and are tasked with promoting the software products I create.

If the company were to concentrate on my software development initiatives, we might end up creating new features that our customers don't care about. But if the opposite were true, and marketing alone became the focus, our company might end up falling behind the competition because we're engrossed in promoting old features rather than developing new ones.

That's why successful product management requires a unique set of skills. The best PMs have a firm understanding of technology, the business, and the user experience, and help steer the development of new products by considering all three at once.

What product management isn’t

Product management is NOT the same thing as project management, though they do have similarities. Both functions work on projects and interact with different company departments.

The goals of project management are:

  • Speak with department heads
  • Discover the requirements for a specific project/product
  • Deliver it to them within a given set of parameters (like budget and time).

Note one important omission: the customers and their needs are not considered.

Product management is the opposite: the end-user is always the top priority, and a PM's main objective is to ensure their company delivers a good product that will please customers, not just satisfy a specific department.

What does a product manager do?

Now that we know what product management is and why it's important, let's talk about the three main tasks a product manager like me is actually responsible for:

  1. Learn about customers and get their feedback
  2. Prioritize product work
  3. Build the product

1. Learn about your customers and get their feedback

The first job of a PM is to learn about the company's ideal customer. Whom does the organization serve? Why do these folks need the product? What pain points does the product specifically solve for them?
(Editor’s note: if you're not sure how to get your hands on this information, keep reading—we cover the topic in detail in a few paragraphs.)

Two things to keep in mind:

  • A good PM never stops learning about customers. The market will change, your product will change, and your ideal customers might change too—and it’s your job to keep constantly up to date with the target market and its needs
  • The products you build won't satisfy everyone, so don't waste your time trying. Focus on your company's target customer(s) and build solutions specifically for them first
user-polls
This is our product team asking customers what they need us to build next

When you know who you're creating products for, you need to invest time into getting their feedback and learning what they like and don't like about your product. This is easily done by speaking directly with customers, using a service like Hotjar to survey them and capture some of their thoughts and opinions, and looking at product stats and usage trends via tools like Mixpanel.

2. Prioritize product work

Once you have a clear picture of your company's ideal customer(s) and have collected direct feedback from them, you can begin to prioritize your next steps:

  • Which features should you add?
  • Which should be taken away?
  • Do you need to create a whole new line of solutions?
  • How do these decisions align with your organization’s vision for the future?
product-roadmap
Your job as a PM includes planning for the future

🔥 Pro tip: before finalizing the plan for building new features, always look to validate the feature ideas with some or all of your users, either by having user interviews, showing prototypes, or running usability testing. This way you get on-the-fly validation that you are building the right features for your customers and avoid expensive mistakes, for example the one we made by sinking $200k in an app that nobody wanted.

3. Build the product

At this point, you know whom your ideal customer is and have collected feedback from them. You also know your company's vision for the future. Congrats: it's time to start building!

The key during the building process is to think small and agile. I never recommend big projects: chunk them down into manageable tasks and focus on delivering a Minimum Loveable Product (MLP). Then get customer feedback on each iteration your team produces before making more changes.

When building products, always focus on things that will make a difference in your customers' lives!

How to understand your customers and be a successful PM

Knowledge of your company's customers is the foundation of everything you'll do as a product manager, so I’m going to share 5 tested strategies to help you understand them on a deep level.

1. Review existing customer feedback

Start by reviewing any and all survey information, on-site survey results, and product reviews you can find. This will tell you a lot about what your target market does and doesn't like, the problems they’re trying to solve, and the general perception they have of your products.

user-feedback
An example of the feedback we collect on our product

This kind of information is a great place to start planning your product roadmap and developing an effective product strategy.

📚Read more → in August 2019, we went through an exercise of collating and reviewing over 120 public product reviews for our own tool, Hotjar. You can run a similar exercise to understand the top 5 things people love about your product and their 3 least favorite things you need to be aware of.

2. Collect new feedback

hotjar-on-site-survey-rating.width-750

One of the easiest ways to understand what your current (and potential) customers want and need from your product is to ask them. Set up an on-site survey that asks questions such as “what is missing from this page?,” “how likely are you to recommend this product—and why?,” and use the answers to understand larger trends in what people are looking for.

📚Read more → on any given day, the product and design team at Hotjar collects feedback from on-site surveys and feedback widgets to get a better idea of what to fix, update, and scale as we keep building Hotjar, and the same logic applies to your product. Here is a detailed breakdown of how we use feedback at Hotjar to build a customer-centric product if you’re looking for practical, step-by-step inspiration.

3. Contact your customers

If your company has been in business for a while, then I also suggest you contact both past and current customers to get first-hand feedback. Find out why previous customers decided to move on from your products: did they no longer have a need for your solution or did your product not meet expectations?

Also, find out what keeps your current customers around. What problems do your solutions solve for them? And what features would they love to see your team develop next?

4. Watch old session recordings to see what worked and didn’t

You can score valuable customer information via a customer insights platform like Hotjar. Our product's Session Recordings literally record the actions of your customers as they peruse your company's website: you'll be able to see their mouse movements, the things they clicked on, and the website or app element that didn’t work for them. You'll also be able to tag recordings and make notes for each session so you know what to improve.

From one PM to another: Session Recordings are a fantastic way to learn about your customers and how they interact with your company's website.

5. Use heatmaps to see what customers interact with
what-is-a-heatmap

Heatmaps is another feature included with Hotjar and other customer insight apps. It shows, in a very visual way, customer behavior on individual pages, such as clicks and how far down a webpage they're willing to scroll.

With this information, you'll be able to tell what interests your customers, what confuses them, and what motivates them to purchase from your company—vital information for us PM pros.

How to get hired as a product manager

Maybe at this point you're thinking, "Great, now I know what a product manager does. But how do I actually get hired as one?" Good question! Here are my tips to help you achieve your goal:

1. Be inquisitive and eager to learn: by reading books, blog posts (like this one), watching videos, and taking online courses, you will gain more knowledge of what it means to be a PM. You’ll also identify areas where you need to be more knowledgeable, and set out to improve your skill sets accordingly.

🔥 Pro tip: reach out to any product managers you might know, myself included, and ask them questions about their day-to-day.

product-books
a few book recommendations from us to you

2. Follow your passion: as a PM, you need to be extremely fluent in the application area of the product you will be managing. There are myriad different application areas for digital products - from healthcare to construction, to user experience analytics (like Hotjar), to astrophysics. The opportunities are endless, but to succeed as a PM, you’ll want to be working in an application area you are passionate about.

3. Practice what you’ve learned: you’ve been reading about product management and you’ve also got a short-list of areas that you’re passionate about. Awesome! A big plus would be to dedicate some time to creating a product improvement plan for one of the tools in your ideal application area. This is an excellent opportunity to apply your learnings and also gives you something to showcase in your interviews for your product manager role! Speaking of which:

4. Apply for that PM role: find companies you'd be excited to work for that operate in the areas that you’re passionate about. Then just go for it - schedule some interviews to kick off the process and get ready to answer the interviewer’s questions.

5. Gather feedback: worry not if you get rejected at first. Instead, take this opportunity to gather feedback about your application and see what you need to improve on. Once you’ve completed the improvements, iterate again through the process.

After all, this is very similar to what you’re going to be doing in your PM role.

🔥 Pro tip: humility is key in the process. Feedback should always be embraced, especially when it comes from folks who are looking at dozens of resumes from both experienced and non-experienced PMs.

Product management interview questions

To get a product management job, you'll need to make a good impression during the interview. Here are a few common questions you'll want to prepare for:

  • What's your background? This is a general question interviewers typically ask regardless of the position they're hiring for. When attempting to secure a job as a PM, make sure you articulate why the role interests you and why you’d want it as the next step in your career.
  • Tell us about your accomplishments. If you have product management experience, it is critical to prepare some practical examples of accomplishments you achieved in previous roles: features that you introduced, interesting (and relevant) learnings you found, how you’ve shown product leadership in the process.

If you do not have product management experience, then showcasing some form of prototype product work (as I explained in the previous section) will definitely help. Also look at accomplishments from previous roles, even if they are not specifically PM work (of course, remember to keep this relevant to the role you’re applying for).

  • Have you ever been in a leadership position before? The best PMs understand how to lead a team and interact with stakeholders within an organization. Make sure you're ready to share information on leadership positions you've held, leadership philosophies you have, and your personal leadership style(s).

Obviously, in a serious interview for a PM position, you'll be asked way more than these three questions, but the queries above are a good place to start when preparing.

What are common product management job roles?

hotjar-product-team

As the field of product management grows, new job roles continue to spring up. Each of the following four product management roles has different responsibilities and require different experience levels.

1. CPO (Chief Product Officer)

The CPO oversees all product development initiatives inside a company. This person normally reports directly to the organization’s CEO and spends their days creating and maintaining a product strategy that achieves a specific company vision.

Occasionally, the CPO and CMO (Chief Marketing Officer) are one and the same. In this instance, the CPO would also be tasked with marketing the products they help create.

2. President or VP of product management

The President or VP of product management's main duty is to direct a team of product managers. This person must also communicate with leadership in other departments (i.e. sales, engineering, marketing, etc.) to ensure the products their team creates will help to achieve overarching business goals.

A President or VP of product management typically reports to a C-level executive.

3. Director of product management

Depending on the size of the organization the product management Director works for, they'll either report to a VP of product management or directly to the CEO. Their main job is to help define a clear product vision and maintain synergy across the PMs to ensure everyone is working toward the same goal.

As with all leadership roles, Directors of product management are also expected to provide a solid support system and the coaching required for their PMs to be successful.

4. Product manager

Lastly, we have the product manager who is tasked with strategizing, roadmapping, and defining features for a specific product or product line. Like each of the roles mentioned previously, product managers must be able to work with multiple teams and fill the gaps between them.

Top 5 tips for product managers

product-team-hotjar-2

Ready to become a better product manager? I have five additional tips for you:

1. Have a deep knowledge of your ideal customer

I mentioned it before, but it bears repeating: a true understanding of your company's ideal customer is the foundation of product management. Without a deep knowledge of this important group of people—what they like, what they don't, what their goals are, the problems they're trying to solve, etc.—you're dead in the water.

2. Be able to explain your product strategy

As a PM, you'll be in charge of spearheading product strategy. Which means: you'll need to be able to explain what your company's customers want and how to create it for them, properly analyze product-market fit, and develop a realistic timeline for the completion of a successful product.

It's a big undertaking but you'll see in the next section that you won't be alone: you'll interact constantly with the engineering, sales, marketing, and support departments. Take advantage of their insight!

3. Understand you can’t fit in every feature

In a perfect world, every product your team creates would have every possible bell and whistle. But we don't live in a perfect world and you won't be able to give your products every imaginable feature—at least not all at once. The sooner you accept this, the better.

Your product management role isn't about cramming every feature into your company's solutions. It's about prioritizing the right features for your customers and focusing all your efforts on them.

4. Prioritize what needs to get done

How do you know which features to prioritize in your product roadmap? Again, it all comes back to a solid understanding of your ideal customer and your company's vision for its future.

What does your target audience need from your products? Which pain point do they want you to solve? And how does solving these pain points position your organization 5, 10, even 15 years from now?

5. Keep your team motivated

Just like any other management role, as a product manager, you have to be able to motivate your team and keep it working toward company goals. This isn't always easy—especially when you've been working on the same project for an extended period of time.

Fortunately, I have a few motivation tips for you:

  • Set realistic goals: constant failure is demoralizing. Set goals the team can actually achieve within a reasonable timeframe (long projects are also demoralizing). Then use past success and failure as a drive for the future.
  • Foster collaboration: most people enjoy interacting with others. Brainstorm ways to build cross-functional teams and prioritize collaboration.
  • Recognize hard work: publicly praise your team for their efforts. Let them know you appreciate their hard work and they'll be more motivated to keep pushing.

What makes a product team?

product-team-hotjar

Effective product management requires cross-functional teams because the best products need diverse perspectives to be developed.

It all starts with the PM, but they don’t work alone. They need to interact closely with other company stakeholders from the engineering, sales, marketing, and support departments. Together, they'll develop a product roadmap and development strategy, and assess product-market fit based on what they know about their customers.

For example, after communicating with support teams and conducting extensive customer research, a product manager knows that features A, B, and C are the most important, and developing them should be a priority. This product manager then approaches the head of engineering to explain what needs to be built.

As the engineering team begins to build the new features, the PM starts looking at possible ways to get validation that the team is building the right thing for their users, either through some form of a prototype, a/b test, or a beta release.

Once the product is built, tested, and perfected, the PM typically contacts the CMO at the company and helps to brainstorm marketing strategies. Bonus points, however, if the marketing team is looped in at an earlier stage: they might add insight and long-term vision to the data points you as a PM have already collected.

As you can see, a successful product team is comprised of multiple company leaders all working toward the same goal: a successful product. But the product manager spearheads their efforts and keeps the entire team focused and on track.

5 Product management tools

So far we've covered A LOT about product management including what it is, why it's important, the skills a product manager must have, and how to secure a product management role. The last thing to cover is a list of the 5 tools every PM should be using.

Receptive

Receptive is the tool we at Hotjar use to log our customers’ feature requests. It helps PMs collect and prioritize feedback and requests coming from customers (and team members) in one centralized place.

Aha!

Aha! Is the world's number one product roadmap software, which allows PMs to visualize product strategy and set goals, easily define and prioritize features, and quickly export project reports.

The app also features product roadmap templates, complete customization options, and dozens of integration possibilities. We definitely endorse it!

Slack

Slack is a wildly popular communication tool. Us PMs can segment our text-chat sessions into various channels based on projects, departments, and more, and keep our conversations with various company stakeholders organized.

Slack also lets users enter and exit chats whenever they want (unlike long email chains) and features a searchable history so important information is never lost.

Jira

At Hotjar, we use Jira to manage, plan, and update the Hotjar product backlog, weekly iteration Kanban meetings, and updates to be announced to users. It’s recommended for tracking and maintaining up-to-date task lists for product development.

Hotjar

Lastly, we have Hotjar. We've already mentioned a few of our software's features—Session Recordings and Heatmaps—but our users also get access to features such as feedback widgets and on-site surveys, aka those small pop-ups that ask website visitors questions about the user experience (you might have encountered one while reading this page).

All of these features allow our users to get a much better understanding of their customers, in one centralized place. This is golden information for PMs, who can then use it to inform their product strategies.

In conclusion

The role of PM is increasingly crucial, and if you’ve made it this far you probably know quite a lot about it already! Remember that, as a PM, your first objective is to understand your company's unique customer base. Once you've done that, you can begin to build a product strategy that coincides with the vision of your business and a product roadmap that will help you achieve your goals.

From there, your success in a product management role will depend on your ability to work with cross-functional teams, prioritize product features, and keep your team motivated.

Good luck!

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Luke Vella

Luke is passionate about learning new things and building products that leave a positive impact. He can also teach you quite a bit about birds.