In my previous article about special requests I explained that the way you deal with special requests depends a lot on your product and your client base. If you have a B2B product focused on bigger customers, the product manager “must pay full attention to special requests. There are few customers, but all of them are special and demand customized attention. The product manager must be careful and not implement features that will be used by only one customer. However, requests from one customer, especially the bigger ones, will always be a priority in this scenario.”
So this means that the product manager should do everything that big customers demand?
The short answer is NO! You are still managing a product so two important aspects of product management still applies:
The longer answer is no, but you’ll still have to manage the special requests. There some techniques that can help you deal with these special requests:
These techniques will help productize exceptions. Exception requests are a big part of B2B SaaS product. If you face these exceptions requests with a product mindset, using the techniques above, it will be easier to build a scalable product.
New special requests come up during the sales process. Each of these special requests will take time from the product manager as well as the product development team. The team needs to understand the special request, the underlying problem and design solution options that can be used with other customers. This will take time from the product manager and the team.
At a certain point, the team will use the above described techniques to cope with the special requests in a scalable way. As soon as the team starts to use these techniques, the need to interact with customers for each request will probably persist or even increase. The sales team will ask the product manager to have meetings with the customer and help them show the customer what are the technical options available in order to address the request.
The first step is to train the sales team. However, this won’t be enough. The product manager will continue to be asked to join meetings to answer technical questions. To help with this issue, we should create a new role, the technical sales, also known as sales engineer, someone with technical background who will engage in technical discussions with the customer during the sales process.
Sometimes this role, since it has the sales word in it, is placed under the sales leadership. It’s a possibility, but can lead to misalignment of incentives. Under sales leadership, the incentive is number of sales. So if a tech seller is taking too long to design the solution, and other requests get delayed, a new tech seller is hired, increasing headcount and, consequently, the cost of selling. An alternative is to place this position under product management leadership so the focus is on sales enablement, i.e., provide the sales team with the needed tools to conduct sales without the need for a tech seller.
Supposing everything goes well with the negotiation and the customer decides to buy your product, if there are customizations to be made, additional work is required, no matter if it will be through modules, through advanced configuration, and / or through integration, This work may end up falling into the product development team backlog, which is not ideal, since this work is specific to address a certain customer request, while the product development team should be working on things that could be used by the majority of customers.
To help with this issue, we should create a second role, called professional services. A person with this role work on this type of projects. Setting up a new customer using the customization techniques from the product (modules, advanced configuration and / or integration). It should be people with technical skills able to do the customization work needed to setup the new company. Professional services can be done by a team within the the company that offers the product and / or by third parties. For instance, to implement SAP, Salesforce or Zendesk you can choose to use professional services from them or from certified third parties that have knowledge and experience implementing and customizing their software in many customers. This work is normally billed as setup fee.
Dealing with special requests may be a need of your market, specially if you are in the B2B space with bigger customers. It is possible to build a product that fits these special requests without building a “frankenstein software” product. In order to do that, the product manager and product development team should use one or more of the known techniques to deal with special requests, modularization, advanced configuration and integration. Having these techniques in place won’t probably be enough, since the sales team will still need help in order to present the options to the customer and, after the sale, to implement it. Then enters two new roles, that should be close to product management: technical sales – or sales engineer – and professional services, which could be internal, could be done by third parties or both.
I’ve been helping companies, and their leaders (CPOs, heads of product, CTOs, CEOs, tech founders, and heads of digital transformation) bridge the gap between business and technology through workshops, coaching, and advisory services on product management and digital transformation.
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