B2B Product Management
Episode 010: Jason Knight:
The individual value of an individual user in B2C is relatively low. Ultimately, Google doesn't really, really care if one person stops using their search engine... Whereas in B2B, especially when you're sort of selling big ticket enterprise deals to big corporations, a very small number of users actually hold the future of your company.
JJ: Hello and welcome to Product Voices. So today's conversation is about B2B product management. So is product management different for business to business products than it is for business to consumer products? Obviously, there's a lot of similarities, but there are some nuances that are real and important for us to grasp. So conversation today is all about how product managers in B2B product management can be successful.
And I have a very special guest to talk with me about this, the one and only Jason Knight. Jason describes himself as a passionate product management nerd. I love that. Always curious to learn, pay it forward to the next generation. By day, he leads the product team at FullCircl. By night, he picks up the microphone and interviews a range of product management professionals on his awesome podcast. One Knight in Product.
Jason, thanks for joining me for this conversation.
JASON: It's good to be here. And thanks for the kind intro as well.
JJ: You bet. And it's going to be fun to be on the other side of the microphone for once, right?
JASON: Yeah. It's always terrifying because when I'm doing it myself, I'm obviously in control and I can chop out all the bits that make me sound dumb. But tonight I don't have that luxury. So I will have to work extra hard.
JJ: Yeah. You got to be on your game here, Jason, because, yeah, I only edit out what makes me sound dumb.
JASON: Exactly. That's the prerogative of the host.
Okay, so let's get the convo started. B2B companies obviously have some similarities to B2C companies when it comes to product management. But what's different? What are some of the differences that you've seen in the way products management looks and feels in business to business companies as opposed to business to consumer companies.
JASON: One thing I should call out just to start with is that my entire product experience and career has been basically B2B or at best, kind of B2B2C. So I'm not speaking from a kind of 20 years experience at Amazon or something like that or Google or whatever. So some of this is more based on obviously, I have experience in B2B. And I know a lot about the sorts of stuff that happened there, but a lot of what I'm comparing it against to what I hear from other people. So I just wanted to get that straight in case people think that I'm pretending that I have expertise that I don't. But I do think that there are some differences to what you see here and friends that I have that work in, B2C that I speak to. And of course, one of the big differences that you don't always see or very rarely see, I guess in B2C sales teams. Like if you're selling into companies, if you're selling into big companies, you're going to be working in an environment that has salespeople and that adds dynamics. You'll be working with account managers at your side, almost certainly. You may well even have some kind of professional services arm or some kind of side bit that does more of the kind of white glove engagements and stuff like that.
So things like that. Some of the obvious differences, I think also you could argue. And you'd probably be right to argue that the individual value of an individual user in B2C is relatively low. Ultimately, Google doesn't really, really care if one person stops using their search engine or something like that app. They care if a million people stop using it, but maybe not even that, but they certainly don't care if one person. Whereas in B2B, especially when you're sort of selling big ticket enterprise deals to big corporations and stuff, in some cases, a very small number of users actually hold the future of your company in their hands because that 20 people or whatever that are using it. Some big company that's paying you 500 grand a year or something for the privilege you're having to deal with a much smaller level. And that does have some complexities as well, which maybe we'll talk about around like how you do discovery, how you do testing, how you do experiments and all that sort of stuff. So there are some dynamics. I think that ultimately product management as a practice the goal should remain the same. Caveat that by saying that they don't always, but they should. But there are many differences that kind of impact on some of the ways that you might get to where you want to go.
JJ: Yeah, I completely agree with that. And I've seen in my experience experience, and my experience being in the product role is, I would say, similar to yours, probably a big majority of it in B2B versus B2C. And so some of my B2C experience is more as an adviser, consultant, that sort of thing. But one of the things that I see both in my own experience and working with lots of B2B company is exactly what you just said. There are instances where they've got ten customers, period. That's it. Right. And obviously they'd like to have more, but the industry, they're in the niche, they're working in the products that solve the kind of niche problem. They've got ten or twelve customers. And so there's a very different scenario to say we're not going to just do something for one customer when you've got ten or twelve customers than a consumer company that's got, like you said, a million, a billion, whatever. I mean, obviously you're not going to do that as Google or Facebook or Meta or whatever. Right. But a company that has ten customers and one of those ten customers says, hey, I need this, whether it's the long term solution that you want or not, it's really hard to say no to that. Right. And so that's a real difference in a real nuance. So I'm glad you brought that up.
So let's maybe dig in a little bit there. How have you seen in customer discovery you mentioned, like finding real problems for seemingly a small subset of customers, but then also navigating what you believe are the problems that should be solved in that market for that customer base versus what they're a sales team or the clients themselves are coming back? Like, how do you balance that kind of push and pull situation in the B2B world.
JASON: We have to call out that in some cases you absolutely don't like. There are many companies that operate in a very, very, very aggressively sales lead mode. And every single feature that comes in from either the sales team or from the CS team or whoever they're coming in from, it's almost like it gets sorted in the order of the renewal date of the contract or something maybe divided by or times by the value or something like that. And then that's basically a prioritization method. And in some companies that actually may end up being kind of how you have to do it. Like we talked about, if you only have a few clients in your potential adjustable market. Like I was talking to someone the other day, he works for a company that has an addressable market like five oil companies. There's probably no escaping some level of that sales lead model when you're dealing with these huge multinational corporations that are sitting there spending what's to them is effectively a rounding error. But to you as an existential amount of money, you're not going to be able to fight that fight and win every time.
Because ultimately we may be as precious as we want about products, but the companies that we build products for, they have to make money. We need to have a viable business. Right. So I think that there are some companies that are always going to be more along that kind of sales lead contract led type approach. And there's some people that probably just enjoy building stuff like that. It does veer dangerously close to professional services and there's nothing wrong with being professional services as long as you accept and own the fact that you are professional services and. Price accordingly. I think flipping it back to the question, like, if you want to get ahead of that. I mean, I have a few different kind of thoughts about this, and I have to admit that all of them have their own challenges.
But for me, it's like a big part of the problem can come if, for example, you have a founder with an idea, maybe they worked in an industry, had a massive problem that they were experiencing in that industry, and they decided that they wanted to go and start up a little company to solve that problem for people. And that's a great idea. But if they've not got any kind of tech product chops, then they may just end up starting. Not really a start up in a classic lean startup sense, but almost like just a small version of a big company. And everything's going to be optimized around sales and around the relationships that they have, and they'll be solving problems maybe for some company that they either worked for or they knew, someone who worked for, like someone from their network, someone who is prepared to take a punt on a new solution that may or may not work. And that's fine as a kind of a kickstart.
But then if you get into a situation where you're basically building for what that one company or a very small number of companies, you actually may end up believing that you've got product marketing fit when you haven't really you've got kind of product that bunch of companies fit. But that bunch of companies does not give you a scalable product that can go out to the mass market. So I like to think that there's some work that product people can do to try and do the classic sort of market segmentation positioning work kind of veering into product marketing a little bit there as well. But to sit there and say, okay, well, who exactly should we be selling to? We can't just sell to everyone. What is our audience? What is our market? Where are our best opportunities, who are the best position to serve and really try and focus down on that? Because if your sales team are going out there and just trying to sell to anyone, then anyone is going to come back and say, well, hey, we need this extra thing or this extra thing or this extra thing. So if you can try and get much more specific and find a market of sufficient size that can support your growth goals but of sufficient consistency that they generally want the same thing, then that work can try to recalibrate you away from being kind of the person that's building stuff or whoever the founder happens to know will have in their little black book.
So I think that may or may not work depending on who you're dealing with and the types of companies that you have to work with. But that's definitely a thing that I think is worth trying. If you can. And I also think that if you're actually getting a good discovery loop going and actually getting out there and talking to your users, talking to your buyers, ideally in that sort of more constrained niche market, rather than just anyone that comes to you, you can start to actually understand and what people want before they start asking for it. So you kind of get ahead of the curve. And all of the big features that pretty much are generic things that are wanted around that entire market. You can either have them on your roadmap or have already said that you're not going to do them or be building them as you go. And then anything that you do get asked for in these sales conversations, which is kind of an outlier request, is legitimately an outlier request, and you can treat it accordingly. You may make a business decision to sit there and say, well, we're going to build that because it's worth 500 grand. But at least you're owning that decision rather than that being the default way that you have to do business.
JJ: Yeah, I love that. And I think it's such a great way to kind of couch this. So I always say to business to business product managers. Number one, don't fall into the trap, which is really, really common and easy trap to fall into in this world of being just an order taker. Right. So just the agency model or just the professional services model, just wait for your customers to come ask for something and do more of what you just said, which is in B2B product management, sometimes even more so than in B2C. You've got to be the expert of the market. The product manager has got to be the one who can see around the corner. And as you said, anticipate needs before the salespeople or even the customers anticipate them. And so you can have those on the roadmap. That makes you an expert, that makes you the go to person. And also, as you said, makes it easier to say, we already have that on the case. Right. Or on the road map or what have you. We can reprioritize if needed. I think that's really important. But to an earlier point you made, you also have to pick your battles. Business folks who come from B2B, excuse me, who come from B2C into B2B, that's a hard transition for a lot of product managers because they think that any agreement of just doing what the customer says is absolutely taboo. We should never, ever do it. And that's just not the reality in some of these companies. As you said, sometimes you just have to do it. You just have to do it, number one, because some customer really wants it. And you're going to keep that long term relationship or you got to keep the lights on. Right. And you've got to make the money. So sometimes you got to make those business decisions. But I love what you said there at the end, which is just make it an intentional business decision. Don't make it the matter, of course, and the rule of everything you do. But if you're going to make some exceptions to that, because it makes sense from a business perspective, that's the way to do it. So I think that's a really important point there.
JASON: Yeah, I just think it's important to do things on purpose, like exactly default behaviors or that's how it's always been around here. Behaviors, stuff like that. They never really seem to lean. They never really seem to lead to very good decisions. Now, I know that there are companies out there that are probably just, as you put it, kind of taking orders and doing what they can to just kind of chop through the backlog of customer requests. And I'm sure some of them have some small level of success. I'm pretty sure they'll have trouble scaling it and going big. But of course, you don't need to go big. Like if that's how you want to run your company. Again, on the fact that you've got a far more service mindset price accordingly, do what you can.
But I do agree, yeah. Getting in front of the getting ahead of the curve and actually trying to build things that you know that your market wants or that you have a good understanding of what you think your market wants. But of course, part of that is also building small or trying to build small, breaking stuff up, being a proper lean, agile person who's not just sitting there trying to just do everything and come up with this perfect little thing, it's like, no, let's build incrementally and see how that lands and how that resonates, how that's getting picked up. But also when it then comes to what do we then do when Big Co comes up to us and says they'll give us 500 grand if we just have this one feature? Well, there's two things. One of the things is quite often that doesn't actually happen. Like the whole thing about, yeah, well, build this and they'll come it's like that doesn't always happen and that's worth tracking. How many times did the sales team come to us and say, oh, we just need this, and then they'll sign and you rush it through and they don't sign because of some other reason that was probably obvious from the outset. That's worth tracking.
But also, if they do say those things, if you do make that business decision, that it's something that's worth investigate. Well, first of all, try to build small. You don't want to sit there and just take a nine month development project on or something like that and waterfall the heck out of it and just get to the end and probably get a really bad result result or really disappointing result. You want to take it in stages. But also I like to think that those types of customer requests are really almost discovery opportunities because you can sit there and you can say, hey, such and such a company want such and such some functionality that does whatever. That sounds like something that other companies might want, but they just didn't ask for yet. So whether we build that or not at that time to win some deal, let's use that as a jumping off point for some discovery with some other people.
So we can sit there and say, well, actually that is something that has some potential and we can build it in a way that you can unlock some of that potential. So like trying to genericize customer requests as much as possible, I think is a key part of B2B product management. You never want to be building custom stuff for people, but if you do try and make it as generic as possible, so it could be a valuable feature that you can make available to other people in due course.
JJ: Yeah, absolutely. I want to take it a little bit back to the basics for a second. Let's talk about the day to day world. Tell me a little bit about your experience, just your daily activities, who you work with, what comes up, what fires you've got to put out some of the hopefully the strategic rituals that we also go through. What's a day to day look like for a product manager in the B2B company?
JASON: Well, I mean, you'll be speaking a lot to engineers and designers. If you have designers. We work primarily with API products here and a lot of my time. So whilst I am an advocate for good API design, it's not quite the same type of designer. In that case, you'll be working a lot with the developers, you'll be working a lot with the designers, you'll be working a lot with the CS team and the sales team and the marketing team, or you should be. I think one thing that can get in the way is if you start to other the rest of the business. So like, for example, in fact, even the term the business, I mean, it's something that I've used to my shame in the past. And I see in other conversations as well, like almost referring to the rest of the business, like the commercial part of the business, the non product, the non development part of the business as the quote unquote business, like a different silo that the two should never meet.
And it's like anyone that says that should have their product management card confiscated and it's. Do 20 laps around the pitch or something like that. Because ultimately we're all part of the business and we all need to be working together. Like, there's no one moral high ground in any of this. We should all be working together. So I think that it is incumbent on, on all B2B product managers to develop really good relationships, not just with the developers and the designers, like the product trio, but also with the sales people, the CS people, the Ops people, like whoever else you have in the company. And make sure that you're having regular catch ups with them. Finding out what's important to them, finding out what's going on in their worlds, what they need. You can't do everything that they need, but you should at least know what they need, what feedback you're getting from them. And it almost becomes, again, like another angle for discovery. Because these people are out there talking to customers all the time, they're talking to prospects all the time. There's valuable insight and information in there. See it through the lens from which it comes. Because, of course, people have different motivations and different things to emphasize or prioritize. But you should absolutely listen to it, treat it with respect. Treat the people with respect. I think one of the things that I've started to advocate more recently, and I've done it myself in the past, and it's definitely an interesting experience. It's like. Start reading their books, start trying to understand their world a bit more, rather than just saying, oh yeah, stupid salespeople. That's not a good position to be in. You ought to be a partner with those people.
So again, from a sort of day to day perspective, you want to be talking to your users as best you can, depending on the dynamics of the company. You want to be talking to the buyers because they're probably going to be a separate team for more of the strategic account holders and stuff like that. But you want to be talking a lot to your internal people as well, making sure that you're making them feel valued, that you're getting input and context in them, and of course, making sure that everyone's aligned as well.
JJ: Relationships and product management are critical. Period. Relationships and B2B product management and B2B companies. I agree with you. It takes on a whole new level because there are so many people involved in the success of that product. And I love what you said, not to other the people. I mean, that is just a really poignant point. We're all in this and we're all part of the business, whatever role we're in. So I think that's a really important one. And that relationship building is really one of the keys to success.
What about Pitfalls? What about some of the things that we can inadvertently get into when we're in this world? Any Pitfalls that you would advise a product manager to be aware of and to avoid whenever possible.
JASON: So I remember sitting in a meeting once in one of the companies that I worked for, and it was like an orientation for new staff. So kind of few slides about the company and what everyone did and who was in charge of all the teams and all that sort of stuff, fairly traditional sort of onboarding stuff. And they had like an Organigram type thing rather than the entire or charge, just like a list of all the verticals, I guess, and who was in charge of each. And for some reason they split it into internal and external teams. I don't know why they did that, but they did. And when I saw products listed as an internal team, I knew that there had been a breakdown. And basically I, as the person in charge of that team at the time, had failed. And I don't use that word lightly, but it was a failure of mine. If the product team is being seen as an internal team because actually a product team isn't an internal team, we're supposed to be out there talking to users, talking to our customers, talking to the buyers. We're supposed to be doing that as a matter of course.
And I think that if we kind of take that back to what the pitfall is, it's like being seen as kind of a delivery function, being seen as effectively a bunch of project managers. That are there to do the bidding of the sales team and the bidding of the CS and the account managers. Kind of like what we touched on earlier. Like we want to talk to these people, we want to engage with these people, we want to partner with these people. But if we're just seen as the people who take the messages backwards and forwards between those people and the engineers, and the engineers don't get to talk to those people because they're separate. I think that's a really common problem in B2B product management and something that I think that we should all really push against because our job is not to just be the message carriers. We're there to be strategic partners to all of these different parts of the business. And if we're not seen as that because of the way the company is set up or the expectations of what product managers are supposed to be doing in that company is misaligned with what actual product management is, then the very value of product management in that company is being questioned or ignored.
JJ: Yeah, I think that's a really important point. I want to dig a little bit into something that we've talked about in passing here, because I think it's a really big area for product managers in B2B worlds to grasp and understand buyers versus users. I call it the customer chain and the various constituents that are across, maybe even the entire chain. Like you sell to a retailer who then sells to the end consumer or even distributor to the retailer, to the consumer. Right. Whatever it may be, but also within an organization. So there's a buyer of a product, there's the actual user of the product, and those are usually two different people within a customer.
So I want to talk a little bit about that, because I think that's one of the things that's really important, especially for people who come from a consumer world where that, quote unquote customer chain is very simple. I sell to the end user, and that's the only customer I have versus when you're either selling through different constituents or you have different constituents within your customer base, let's talk about that. So when your product manager and you're trying to do discovery and you're trying to understand problems of different customers, what's a good method to, number one, understanding who those people are? Who's going to sign the check? Who's going to actually buy the product, who's going to actually use it on a day to day basis? How do you go about figuring, figuring that out? Who should I understand? And then are there certain methods for understanding one versus the other.
JASON: A lot of this comes back to what we were already talking about, which is we have people in the company speaking to customers and users and potential customers all the time. And of course, these are the sales teams, the marketing teams, the customer success, the account managers, all of these people are engaged with customers all the time. And when it comes to finding out, well, who should I be talking to? These people are invaluable to help you navigate the organizations, especially if you're working in Big B2B SaaS like you're selling to enterprises. And the companies that you're selling to are pretty complicated using the knowledge that has been built by your internal teams about the power structures, the struggles, the politics within those companies, I think is really important.
Now, on the flip side of that, what you can find is you get this kind of idea that these people should be the Guardians of the customer conversation. And they don't want us smelly product people coming in and stinking the place up. And it's like, look, I get where that comes from because, for example, CS account managers are being explicitly rewarded, rewarded for the kind of the relations that they build with these people and the retention and the loyalty and all of that stuff. Like they're going to be very protective about their relationships. And that makes sense. So that there may be some kind of. Trust building to happen between the teams if they don't have this sort of sense of trust between those teams and the product team. But at the same time, you can't do product management if you're not talking to users buyers to some degree, like whether we can all get to the Teresa Torres once a week thing or whether it has to be a little bit less depending on the dynamics of the market, the number of customers you've got all of that stuff, you still need to be able to do it. And if you can't, that needs to be escalated.
And if you can't from the top level, then you have to really seriously consider your product management position in that company. I hate being the guy that always says, well, you could get another job, but that's always an option. But if there is hope for you there, and if there are avenues and there's kind of an appetite for you to get in there and start to have some of these conversations on whatever level you can, you absolutely need to have those. And again, those sales and CS counterparts can be really instrumental in kind of bringing you along and making sure that you do what you are able to navigate that organization. I think when it comes to then actually talking to these people, you have to also realize that they may hate each other like the buyers and the users within that company. There could be their own politics within that company. That make it pretty tricky. And actually I was doing a panel thing yesterday and one of the panelists came up a really good point. In some cases, the buyers at these big companies may have a vested interest in not even letting you get anywhere near the US users because the buyers don't want to look bad. If the users aren't happy with the system that the buyers bought for them. So there's a lot of politics, and you have to navigate that within the organization. You have to be as sensitive as you can. And also, when it comes to talking to these customers and buyers and all the people you do get to talk to, it's really critical to be conscious of of contract dynamics, state of the relationship between you and them. Like, you don't want to sit in there blundering and trying to do some deep discovery on some new initiative with some company that's about to churn because they're so angry with you. You probably want to try and find a way to talk to these people about something, but don't just go in there with your usual script, because they're probably not in a good place to do that for you. So you have to be really conscious both of the internal politics of the organizations and the state of the contract and the state of the relationship between your company and them, and make sure that you kind of optimize your message accordingly.
JJ: Makes perfect sense. So final question. Obviously, you are a go to resource for product management. I'm going to link on Productvoices.com some of your writings, obviously, to your amazing podcast One Night in Product. So I love your stuff, and lots of folks do as well. So listeners, you'll be able to find some really great resources from Jason himself. But Jason, what other resources? Like who else do you like to read or listen to or what have you? What other resources do you use yourself and do you recommend for others in product management specifically to be product management.
JASON: So I think that the finest B2B product management writer that I'm aware of and that I've been reading for a while, and I've even argued that every single thought that I've had, this person generally has had and executed did better before I thought of it. And I always ended up reading one of his articles and realizing that he's made that point better than I ever could. And that's Rich Mirinov. Rich is obviously very well known. He's got a book. He's got a long running blog. All of these articles are amazing. They all encapsulate the very stark reality of B2B product life and some kind of really actionable ways that you can kind of survive that as well. So Rich's writings are absolutely amazing.
There's also a new version of a book by Étienne Garbugli, Lean B2B, which is coming out second edition, I think is coming out this month. So like Lean B2B was obviously a great book that came out a few years ago, talking about, about kind of how to get into B2B from a sort of startup perspective as an entrepreneur. But it's got a lot of really great product management advice in there as well about how to do some of the things that we talked about tonight, so how to navigate organizations, how to validate your problems, how to sort out your market. So I definitely recommend checking out the second edition of Lean B2B when it comes out as well.
But apart from that, I'm actually fairly. Agnostic when it comes to content. I check out stuff on Twitter and on minor products and all these different places all the time. But I don't normally try to focus too much on pure B2B because I think that a lot of what we need to to do is try to work out ways to take some of the finest general product thinking and translate that into B2B, which obviously it's not always as easy as that sounds, but I think it's important to try and keep up to date with the best of product thinking across the board. But I also think that whether it's B2B or not, all people, all product managers that are working for any type of company should always use these classic books and thought leaders and writers and everyone else that you can get this content from as inspiration and kind of almost like a North Star to aim for. But definitely don't get too depressed if you don't quite get there. Whereas some of the things in your own reality have to be a little bit different because that's always going to happen. No company is perfect, and it's just about trying to just do your best based on the best practices that you do, identify and just see how many of those you can get to work for you, and kind of just work out the best as you go.
JJ: Yeah, that's great advice. I mean, the resources are important where the product manager role is the quintessential kind of ongoing learning. And we're always trying to learn. We're always trying to improve because there's no real getting it right every time. There's no real perfection in product management. So we're always on that learning journey. But that's great advice to give yourself a break from time to time, each one of us looks a little differently in terms of our world and the environment we're working in. Sometimes we succeed, sometimes we don't so much, but we're all in this together and use those resources. But give yourself a break. I love that advice.
So Jason Knight, thank you so much for joining me. I'm really, really grateful for your time and your insights. And make sure to check out Jason's podcast one night in Product. Jason, thank you so much for joining me.
JASON: Thanks very much for having me. It's been a pleasure.
JJ: And thank you all for joining me on Product Voices. Hope to see you on the next episode.
Some relevant pieces of Jason's content:
Also this is a good podcast episode on B2B with Jason & Rich Mironov
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