November 7, 2023
Product Management
Customer Experience

Two Roles, One Goal: Maximizing Product Discovery Impact

For product managers, product discovery is their time to shine. Product discovery is an intense period of work with customers that occurs at the very beginning of the product life cycle, when product managers identify a problem and design a solution. But, the customer interactions that occur during product discovery are incredibly valuable, not only to product managers, but also to product marketers.

These precious interactions can reveal a treasure-trove of customer insights for product marketers that are critical to building a successful go-to-market plan. When it comes to product discovery, it pays for the two product leaders to work together. In this blog, I’ll explain why, provide some best practices, and illustrate with an example.

Both roles depend on customer input

Product managers and product marketers both need to gather customer input during the early stages of the product life cycle, albeit for different reasons. For product managers, the input is part of the product discovery process, which noted author Teresa Torres defines as the work product managers do to decide what product to build. For product marketers, customer input is part of the market research used to develop a go-to-market plan.

The two efforts come together when the organization’s leadership team decides whether to pursue the business opportunity presented by a new product. Executives need to know what the product will be and how they will bring it to market, among other factors, before investing in development.

Shared need for deep understanding of customer problems

During product discovery, product managers need to understand the customer problem and use cases. They do this by conducting interviews, surveys, focus groups, and by observation. Then, they ideate solutions to the problem and test them with the customer to determine whether they are usable and valuable. They may do this by adding experiments to their customer interactions.

Product marketers conduct market research to understand the target customer persona, pain points associated with their existing solution, and the value of the proposed solution. Sound familiar? Customer problems and pain points are at the heart of what both roles need to know.

For product marketers, this data and more are essential inputs to a go-to-market plan that describes the product’s positioning in the market, messaging, pricing, sales channels, and many other components.

Work together to satisfy both needs

Not surprisingly, product marketers conduct market research using most of the same methods used by product managers during product discovery. By working together, the two roles can easily design customer interactions to satisfy their respective needs.

This is not to say that every customer interaction should be jointly facilitated. Certain interactions may be better handled by one or the other role. For example, product marketers may not derive any significant value from participating in product usability experiments. A best practice approach is to jointly set the objectives for each interaction and identify a leader based on the role that has the most at stake.

Tim Herbig, a product management coach and consultant says “Don’t get caught up in a rigid classification of who should participate in Product Discovery. Who should be permanently or temporarily involved should be based on the requirements and context of your challenge, instead of a one-size-fits-all definition.”

Respect your customer’s valuable time

Another reason the two roles should work together is simple respect for their customer’s valuable time. Customers don’t want to be bothered by the solution provider’s division of labor between product managers and marketers. Product managers and marketers shouldn’t impose upon them to book separate appointments to answer many of the same questions.

Instead, look for ways to streamline each customer interaction and maximize the value derived for your organization. Take detailed notes, or record the session, and share them widely across the organization. Debrief with those who weren’t in attendance, allowing them to ask questions and share in the conclusions.

Complementary skills enhance interactions

The old adage “two heads are better than one” applies when gathering customer input. The complementary skills that product managers and product marketers bring to interviews, surveys, focus groups and observations enable both roles to get more out of the interaction than if they each go it alone.

In the technology industry, product managers typically have deep technical expertise and engage with customers through a technical lens. In contrast, product marketers often have a business and/or psychology background and are likely to notice different customer behaviors. These complementary skills enable product managers and product marketers to get more out of each customer interaction. By teaming up, they can ask better questions and better interpret customer responses.

Example: Customer advisory board

Among the many great examples of product discovery collaboration in my own career comes from customer advisory board (CAB) meetings. When I was a product marketing leader at a F100 software company, running the CAB was the responsibility of my colleagues in product management. They had the largest stake in making these annual events a success because they heavily relied on the customer input to build their product roadmaps.

However, the product marketing team was involved in every aspect of the event, from setting the agenda, to delivering presentations, collecting customer feedback, and debriefing the rest of the organization. Here are some of the advantages my team gained from being involved in CAB:

  • Learn about competitors, acquisition processes and vendor relationships. This enabled us to create better sales enablement tools for our sales force and partners.
  • Present product messaging (including value proposition), promotion, and positioning. This feedback improved our go-to-market plans.
  • Learn the unique vocabulary customers shared when describing their problems/pains and organizational initiatives. This enabled us to create authentic marketing content.

Get the most out of every customer interaction

Customer interactions are precious opportunities to learn from the people with whom we hope to do business. They don’t occur very often because customers are busy people and they closely guard their time. When product managers or product marketers engage with customers, we should do so with an eye to accomplishing as much as possible for our organization, not just to meet our own functional needs.

Carl Blume is principal consultant at Atlantic Marketing Advisors, a marketing consulting firm serving the B2B software industry, and has held marketing leadership positions at Oracle, HP and several Boston-based startups. He has been a BPMA member since 2018.