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How Product Managers’ Strategic Value is Rising in Organizations

Ashley Sefferman  //  September 11, 2018  //  15 min read

Product managers are deeply connected to the customer. Their knowledge is coveted across departments, and they’re called upon to be the voice of the customer internally. And for product managers at all levels, the strategic value they bring to their organizations is rising.

We hosted an all-star panel of product managers at this year’s Customer Love Summit. Our panelists included Lauren Chan Lee, Principal Product Manager at Care.com; Sandeep Prasad, Head of Mobile at Spirit Airlines; and Richard McNerny, Product Manager of Mobile Products at JetBlue Airways.

In this talk, they share how they leverage their platform to be a change agent for a customer-first culture, get more budget for their teams, career advice for product managers, actionable advice on how to manage up and down, and how they overcome their toughest challenges.

If you prefer to read rather than watch, we’ve included the transcription below the video

Transcription

Ren: Well, hello everyone. Thank you so much for coming and staying. It’s like a very full house. I’m excited to be here. I’m Ren Fisher, I’m with the Apptentive team. I’m really excited to be moderating the panel today. Our panel is “Product Management Today, How PM Strategic Value is rising in Organizations.” With us today…I apologize because we’ve had some changes in title, all upwards and all congratulatory. But we have Lauren Tan Lee, here in the middle. She’s director of product at care.com, we have Sandeep Prasad, who is now head of mobile at Spirit Airlines, and then Rick McNerney, and he is manager of mobile and notifications at JetBlue Airways. So I think I would like to have you both, all three of you, excuse me, briefly introduce yourself by describing your PM role and responsibilities at your company and something that you’re working on that you’re excited about.

Sandeep: Sure. So I just recently started at Spirit Airlines about three weeks ago. I’m the head of mobile. And…I know right? Some of the core responsibilities and strategies, at least that I’m focusing on right now, is just understanding the customer journey. So that’s when you’re making the booking on whether it’s a web or app when you’re going to the airport, interacting with the kiosk, expediting the security and the boarding. And then as you go on inflight, we’re launching Wi-Fi across all the airlines by the end of the year. So understanding those different customer journey points and delivering customer value is really my main initiative this year. And we’re gonna be relaunching the app in November.

Lauren: Hi everyone. So excited to be here. I lead product for our mobile apps and trust and safety teams at care.com. And at care, PM is really a GM type of function. So I have a really broad scope across not just executing with product teams, but also doing everything that needs to get done and putting those things in motion, cross-functionally, whether it’s negotiating a contract or working with marketing on the right campaigns that we need to stimulate our business.

Rick: So previously, in my former life, I was the product manager for mobile products at JetBlue and that was native applications as well as mobile web. Now that role has changed. In my new management position, I’m going to be hiring a backfill, so send resumes my way. And also will now be managing product managers. And it’s an interesting way to get to this position, it has been because of the success of it. So a lot of it has come from understanding enough of the technical information to be able to communicate with the development teams, as well as being able to talk to leadership and understand what their goals and keep that communication flowing to designers, other stakeholders, and really being the traffic cop of information so that the product stays unified even though it crosses very many touch points.

Ren: Excellent, thank you. All right, so we’ve heard from many product managers at Apptentive…at Apptentive, we’ve heard from any product managers rather, that this strategic value of PMs is rising in organizations because of how deeply you are connected to your customer voice. Marketing comes to you with questions, CEOs ask you for advice, sales and customer support are constantly picking your brain on how to connect with customers better. So my question is two parts. It’s, have you experienced this individually? And if so, what are your project predictions on whether this trend or how this trend will continue to evolve?

Rick: Well, I think like the true essence of product management in general, and I’m sure a lot of you’ve heard this, it’s the intersection of business design and technology, right? So it’s your job to talk to all the different stakeholders in your organization, get their input, understand the data from your own product line, as well as be a representation of the customer and really deriving value for them. So to me, that’s the core responsibility of a product manager, and that should be a daily thing for you.

Lauren: Yeah. And just to, you know, add to that, I definitely think that having that having that customer knowledge is an incredible advantage that you have within your organization. So as Ren mentioned, you have all these different functions coming to you for advice. And I find that in my own organization, I even have PMs that come to me because some of the other product teams are organized around a specific feature or functional area, whereas the products that I look after are across the platform. And so I have a lot of knowledge across the entire user journey. So I even have product managers come to me, and that’s really great because it gives you a seat at the table in terms of influencing what that next set of features are or what their right strategies are. And so you can definitely find ways to use that to your advantage.

Ren: And does anyone have any thoughts on if there are disadvantages or challenges that have arisen because of your increased strategic value?

Sandeep: So one disadvantage I see is, being the focal point as a product manager, you’re the one that knows most of the data around the company because you’re talking to all the different stakeholders. So at the same time, your responsibility is for the product success. So to me, the disadvantage is because you’re the one throat to choke in the organization and all the executives are gonna be asking you the questions on why something was success or failure.

Rick: And I think similarly from a different aspect, my products, I do not actually own anything beyond the experience. So at JetBlue, the way people are interacting with the product, I don’t necessarily make the product that you are engaged with. So there’s a conversion team that’s dealing with booking, there’s a check in team, there is the self-service team, all of these various products, I’m sort of building a collage of all of their work and having to create a unified experience that you interact with whenever you use the product. And so the big challenge there is whereas, in your setting, you are the point, you know, the decision maker and owning that product. And in my scenario, I’m dealing with the upstream ramifications of what other teams have decided and try best to advise them so that the collage that I create is cohesive and meets all of the customer needs.

Ren: Excellent. So let’s go to a topic that’s really popular with PMs, and that’s budget. So how can you or are you leveraging your increasing strategic value to drive value and then drive budget allocation as well?

Lauren: I’ll take this one first. Of course, everybody always wants more resources, right? I mean, who in this room does not want more resources right out? So I really have two key points here. One is that you have to ask, right? I’m very pleased to see there’s a ton of women in this room and we all often get that advice that, you know, we don’t ask for things. And that’s certainly true when it comes to resource allocation. I think a lot of times there’s this fallacy that, “Okay, well, this is the team that I have and this is what I’m stuck with.” But that’s not actually true. There’s a lot of decision making that’s happening all the time around budgeting, around where to put people.

So you have more influence over that than you think. So definitely ask. The second point is be specific and actionable with the request that you come with, right? So if I go into the Exec or whoever that decision maker is, and I just say, “Oh, I need more dev resources.” Then it’s super easy for them to be like, “Oh, no, we don’t have budget for that right now.” Like, “Come back to me next year or something.” But if I come in and say, “These are the initiatives that I can do with the resources that I have today, and these are all the other things that I could do if I have two more Devs.” And that was…it’s very easy for them to see exactly what you’re asking for, as well as the return from it. And it is a much easier decision for them to prioritize.

Sandeep: And just to, like, add on to that, to have like a strategic way to increase your budget. So I worked as a product manager, mainly in big corporations. So executives, once they set their budget, and you have a great idea, they’re not going to increase your budget. So the way to get your idea across an organization actually to fruition is basically go across the organization, figure out how your idea fits in with the other stakeholders, whether it’s incentive for the loyalty teams, helping the marketing teams. And once you branch out and establish those relationships, and you create more value for them, you can allocate their budgets to the idea. And that’s really the strategic way you want to do it across a big organization.

Lauren: It’s like inception.

Sandeep: There you go.

Ren: Excellent. All right, do you have any thoughts on that or I should move on to the next question?

Sandeep: I like money and we can build things.

Ren: Yes, perfect. All right, so product teams for mobile that work with us at Apptentive, acquire so much customer feedback that they often find themselves pulled more and more into conversations with leadership in order to share their insights. And so what I would like to ask you, and I’ll start with you, Rick, what kinds of developments and trends are you seeing in product ownership and escalating customer feedback to executives and across multiple departments?

Rick: So I think the creation of JetBlue was to create an airline that actually was providing a service rather than selling a product. That was sort of the model that the founders created and we still strive to provide that service. So customer’s satisfaction beyond the soft skills that our crew members have and that you experience when you’re flying our product service was very specifically driven around people skills, soft skills, and so we were very open. You can…Robin our CEO, gets customer emails and responds to them within 24 hours. So it’s very easy to reach out to our team. So the digital channel wasn’t particularly new.

But as we moved into applications, now what’s changed with using the Apptentive product has been that, now whenever they reach out rather than sending an email to me that’s very vague that says, “So and so from Boston to Fort Lauderdale couldn’t check in.” And I don’t know what they were…was it a kiosk, was it the app, there’s a lot of digital systems in airlines. And so the challenge there was before we had to do a lot of legwork to dig and find out what the actual problem was.

And we didn’t know if it was just anecdotal, if it was connective, where that problem lied and spent a lot of resources and time trying to solve those problems for our leadership. Now that we have the ability to collate that data and have a much bigger picture because we talked to so many more of our customers, we have the ability to focus our leadership. And leadership is now asking the question in a new way of saying, “Is this a problem? Are we seeing this a lot or is this one off?” Which is very powerful and saves a lot of time.

Ren: Excellent. Sandeep?

Sandeep: Well, I was just gonna say, in my former job at JC Penney running their app, we used Apptentative as well. And the insight tool tended for us to save a lot of time, as Rick mentioned, just being able to see the different features you launched and tagging it by release, we are able to diagnose issues that were really missed by us the whole time just because those bugs weren’t found in JIRA and things or other tools. So just having the ability to see from an overall fashion quickly, it really helps you out on a day-to-day basis.

Ren: Excellent. Great. This next question is for Lauren. It’s within the same vein as the topic of customer feedback, but it can be difficult to get all the data you need to fully understand your customers. How do you address this?

Lauren: Yeah, you always wish that you had the perfect data set, but oftentimes that’s just not the case. I once read an article where Jeff Bezos was quoted about the different types of decisions that you need to make. And there’s basically one group of decisions where it’s such an important decision, once you make that decision, you can really never go back from it. And so you have to be super careful when you make that decision. There’s another group of decisions which are recoverable. It is something that, you know, it’s great if it goes well, but if it fails, it’s not the end of the road. And I think that that is a really good way to think about how much data you need to make the decision as well.

So if you have imperfect data, and you are making one of those, like, group two decisions, then it’s fine if you have 70% of the data or you can work with whatever you have. And what’s more important there is that you are trying something out, and then you are gathering the data from that and iterating on that experience. If you are making the first group decision where you cannot recover from it, I would not advise that you go forward and make that decision without the data that you feel is really critical. I would take the time then to instrument the data that you need to make sure that you’re getting that decision right.

Ren: Excellent. So this is also another very popular topic with PMs. But how do you manage the executive expectations, customer expectations, and technical resources in your day-to-day responsibilities? I’m sure that all three of you have a response for this.

Sandeep: Yeah, I think just like to keep this short and sweet, I think being transparent and communicating across the organization, making sure all the different parties are aware of your strategy and roadmap and vision, allows you to set expectations from day one. I think most of the problems with product managers is, you sell the dream in the beginning and then you don’t follow up on a day-to-day basis with them. So when you get to the end of the project, the other parties aren’t informed, and they were originally informed of your goal was at the start of the project. So keeping them in the loop and communicating them and getting their imports on a day-to-day basis is key to actually managing expectations.

Rick: Yeah, I think the only thing I would add to that is because of the success of…at JetBlue when I came in 2014, it was not a product-centric world. I sat on the marketing side of the house and threw ideas over to an IT team that executed. Now I’m on the other side and working directly with the developers and those resources. And I think that because of the successfulness of the pivot that JetBlue made in being transparent, we have to also make sure that the leadership team, you know, may look at a team that goes, “Wow, they’re really turning our product, let’s also have them do this and this and this.”

And they don’t necessarily understand the downstream impacts of, “Well, yes, we could do that, but because of capacity issues and budget, we can’t necessarily grow it.” So I think sometimes pushing back is a good way to…beyond just being informative of where you are with the current product, but for new asks and the whims of leadership sometimes you need to be able to push back on them so they understand what they’re choosing between. I had a boss who liked to talk about ice cream and he always said that whenever you go into talk to leadership, they either want vanilla or chocolate and you need to tell them which one it is. So if you can simplify things down to that push back is a lot easier to swallow because it’s ice cream.

Ren: Thank you for that.

Man: That was a good one.

Ren: All right. So this question I think is…we rapped about it earlier that I’m pretty excited for us to talk about in front of you all. Can you name some changes that you made that you thought were minor but ended up being a major differentiator? Or it can also be a simple thing that ended up having a massive impact and this can be in your product, it can be in your process management style, anything.

Lauren: We rapped about it, but I will not be rapping my answer. Although I think we did have a fantastic transition for our panel. My example is just something very small. So as I mentioned earlier, one of the product areas that I own is trust and safety. And it’s one of those areas where, you know, if you ask anybody, they’ll say it’s super important to our company, but then it’s not always top of mine, right? Like, if you’re the product manager that is focused on enrollment let’s say, you’re really thinking about, like, user growth numbers, you’re not necessarily thinking about things that are necessary from a safety perspective.

So the thing that I started doing was just sending a regular email update to a very broad audience. I spammed some deals. I just did it, I didn’t ask for permission first, and it includes three things. So the first is an update on what the squad is up to, what have we released lately? What’s on our roadmap? The second is, things in the news that are related to this topic area. So it could be everything from like, Facebook’s fake news, stuff that’s been happening or development in facial recognition and how that impacts marketplaces and companies that use it for safety purposes. So pretty broad and just kind of giving some competitive understanding to the whole audience that’s reading it.

And then the third thing is my deep thoughts. And that can just, you know, be whatever I think the interesting or important topic is at that time. And what really surprised me about this is that, you know, usually you get a lot of emails, a lot of emails that people don’t read. But I was so surprised that people actually would respond to my emails and, you know, follow up with their thoughts. And I thought that was a really great way to engage with people and just kind of keep the topic in their mind somewhere so that, like, inception, that next time when they are working on a product feature, they do think of this area to consider.

Ren: That’s a great point. Megan, our resident rapper, actually sends around a weekly email for the sales team. And she gets us all to open it by including three jokes of the week. So to put on that point that you tease the people to open the email and they end up reading the content that you want them to take action on. It’s great. Rick?

Rick: Sure. I think that the biggest surprise to me, I thought it was a small thing, was trusting your business partners, which I don’t know why you would work with someone you don’t trust. But I think that especially large organizations tend to put pressure on the smaller organizations that partner with them. And in my opinion, you shouldn’t work with someone that you don’t trust.

And so my team is very broad. We have people in different states and we have a vast group of…I shouldn’t say vast, that makes the team sound bigger than they are. Vast distance between where the people are geographically. But the part that was surprising to me was how much more successful we were because our relationship was built on trust. So when developers said how much capacity they had, I believed them. And that trust came back to me in quality of work and delivering on time.

And the same thing with our engagement with, you know, mParticles, one of our partners as well as Apptentive. And both of those were relationships where there was a lot of trust and understanding exactly what the product was, what it was going to do, and how it could help us. And beyond that trust then there became the business relationships. It was built on trust first. A lot of times I think that gets lost because it’s easy to just sort of push for a goal and micromanage a partner, or be micromanaged by a partner and not know how to push back and say, “No, this is my area of expertise. And so trust me, I am telling you the right thing. I’m not trying to puff up numbers for you or anything like that.” And you end up with a better product and everybody wins in that scenario.

Ren: Okay. Sandeep?

Sandeep: Yeah, just to kind of go along with what Rick said. I think one of the main models I would say is trust the process. On a day-to-day basis of product managers, you’re gonna have a ton of meetings. And one thing I’ve always been a part of is the Agile workshop, the Agile methodology. And with that comes, you know, daily stand-ups, grooming, writing, user stories, and all those things of that nature.

But a lot of times with all the different things that are rolling, all the different changes, eventually, you’ll want to skip one of those meetings and eventually that will have a downstream impact on the development team, on the UX team. So if there’s any motto of the things that I actually understand, we just trust the process and keep going with what there is. And even though there’s gonna be so many things that are going to try to distract you, stick with it and keep going for it.

Ren: All right. So…this is kind of fun question. What technology trend are you most excited about?

Sandeep: I’m excited mostly for AR and VR right now. Because to me as working for Spirit Airlines, I think it’d be really cool to immerse yourself and picture yourself entering the airline that you’re about to fly in. Seeing if that seat is the type of seat you want to be, and seeing how your bags fit and all that different nature. Just immersing yourself in the in-flight experience can be a real game-changer in terms of what we can do for the product line going forward.

Lauren: I like that too. But I’m also excited about voice as a user interface. I actually have both Alexa and Google Home in the kitchen. They just go head to head all day long. And really what I’m most excited about that technology is that I think that it’s gonna give people who don’t have a way to interact with devices traditionally, a way to interact with technology. I’m thinking about, you know, people who are older or handicapped and they can’t interact with, you know, the ways that we have today. So I think it will unlock technology for a lot more people.

Rick: And one of the things that JetBlue is big on, and I have mixed feelings about, is actually biometrics. So what we’re trying to get rid of the need for you to have that boarding pass, which limits the app that I’ve spent so much time building. But you’ll use it for other things, but the biometrics is a really interesting place because much like Touch ID, you have A face. And in my college, I had two doppelgangers, so I’m pretty sure we could have all unlocked each other’s phones. So it’s an interesting…

About Ashley Sefferman

Ashley Sefferman is Head of Content at Apptentive. A digital communication and content strategy enthusiast, she writes about multichannel engagement strategies, customer communication, and making the digital world a better place for people. Follow Ashley on Twitter at @ashseff.
View all posts by Ashley Sefferman >

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