Product Definition by Specials Request

Letting special requests drive your product development is a bad idea, yet it is a common problem for product management to deal with

... or why can't sales sell what they have
The product manager’s conundrum: Regardless of how well we define, validate, and drive the development process, there is always a segment of the market that isn’t addressed. Usually, we know this up front, and make conscious decisions to not address it. Sometimes, it comes out after launch that some segment or application is not addressed with what you built. In either case, the segment is not served by your product.

And that is OK.

But, almost immediately, Sales will start waving these customers in your face. In my world, they have been trained (rightly or wrongly – more on this later1) that by asking for a special, they can affect the product direction. So the specials requests come in. And your product is duct taped and ‘frankenstein’d into an unsupportable morass.

Oh, you can try to hold the line, but then sales starts escalating. To their manager, who will call you to apply pressure. If you resist that, this manager will raise it to the sales VP level, who will then lean on your BU manager, who will then decree that you shall do this special, because sales told him that it will sell (insert some unbelievable number) units. So you cave. You work with engineering, you work with support, you work with production, and build the special configuration. And you sell one of them.

My friend, you live in one of Dante’s Rings of Hell, a sales driven organization. Usually this happens gradually, like a frog being boiled.

This occurs because you have not gained the stature and status that is needed by the product group. Your division/company/BU leadership has not bought into the “market driven” business. They let concern for short term revenue (in sales due to heroic specials) crowd out long term strategic goals. In these organizations, you will often experience strong formal strategic plans, that are quickly shredded due to course corrections.

How to change the behavior?

There are several actions that you can and must take to alter this spiral.

First, you need to have tremendous market data and information. You need to know in detail, and have what @jimholland termed “market authority”. This means living, breathing, eating, and sleeping in the realm of the markets you pursue. Sales’ first attack will be that “you neglected segment Y, and we MUST address their needs”. Counter that with facts about the market. Total size. Segments and sub-segments. Historical market size. And prove without a doubt that the segment they are chasing is “niche”-y, small, and not in fitting with your strategic plan.

Second, you need to identify these niche-y segments in your planning, size them, and explicitly exclude them from your strategic plan. Document it. Have the senior leaders acknowledge it. Because you know that they will fold to pressure from sales leadership.

Third, counter sales pressure directly. Use the facts and the data from your strategic planning, and your market research data to refute their assertions of the “essentiality” of this niche. Acknowledge that these customers exist, but be firm in communicating that they are not our customers. Re-iterate the importance of being market led. That there are finite resources and time to develop products and solutions, and specials are hugely disruptive.

Fourth, co-opt the support organization. A universal truth is that support HATES non-standard product. It creates tracking headaches, and often morphs into support fiascos in the field, which then completely alienate these customers that you built the special for. They will rally around you in your effort to eliminate these product offshoots.

If you are unable to turn the tables, and instead your product definition is done haphazardly allowing sales to micromanage your priorities via specials, then you should consider a job change. There are some organizations that just aren’t going to break out of the sales lead organization, and you will be frustrated at every juncture.

1 - How does sales get “trained” to drive product development via specials? It usually starts innocently enough. They bring something that sounds really good. A small to the product change to open up your market, and increase your reach. Perhaps it works once, and becomes a successful product. This often happens before an organization reaches the maturity to identify the need, and to fill that need for product management. A taste of success, and then it becomes a cycle. The frequency, and the scope of these specials will escalate, and suddenly, you are building products that are not in your sweet spot.)

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