Product managers must learn to say no

The below content was written by Tammy Yu and published on Built In.

Because sometimes "yes" is a terrible idea

When you see a really good product manager at work, it’s a little bit like magic.

Product managers shoulder many responsibilities, chief among them balancing the demands of customers, executives, developers and other interested parties, all with their own competing wishes and expectations. Somehow, at the end, everyone is happy and gets something they want.

But everyone doesn’t get everything they want. Building a product is as much about deciding what’s not part of the product as what is — and that means saying no to a lot of people.

Saying yes to every demand creates a mess of a product

Laura Graves, managing director at software consulting company Devbridge, said acquiescing to every customer demand might result in happy customers in the short term, but it’ll probably have a negative impact on your own company.

“At the end of the day, if you were to define your product roadmap just as an aggregation of all the requests you’d get from different customers, you would end up with a product that wasn’t very coherent,” she said.

Every company has its vision for the future, and sometimes customers want features that don’t fit well within that vision. That’s when product managers should step in to prevent customers’ demands from pulling the company away from its goals. Sometimes, that may even mean parting ways with long-time customers whose needs no longer align with the direction of the company.

“There may be situations — especially when you have a customer that joined really early on in a product — where the product might outgrow the customer or vice versa,” Graves said.

“Obviously, all of us want to avoid that, but it’s about opportunity costs. Because if you keep chasing these customizations your first customer is asking for, that may take you way off track from the direction you’re building the product in — the direction that’s going to serve a wider marketplace or allow you to drive more revenue.”

Saying no for the wrong reasons can demoralize a team

But saying no is a skill. There are still relationships to maintain, customers to satisfy and company roadmaps to consider. If it’s not done well, saying no can mean losing a customer or even the company itself. Saying no as a product manager requires strategic thinking — so it’s usually not as simple as just blurting it out.

“If you say no in the wrong way, like from a place of ego or defensiveness, your team will shut down, and the pipeline of ideas will start to die away,” said Peter Rivera, a U.S. digital advisory lead at Avanade. “Ultimately, that will start to appear in the quality of the product.”

Not coming from a place of ego means saying no for the right reasons and articulating those reasons to others.

“To say no well, you really have to be a good listener,” Rivera said. “Don’t overlook camaraderie and creating an environment where people feel they can share an idea with you.”

“If you say no in the wrong way, like from a place of ego or defensiveness, your team will shut down.”

One way to explain the reasons for saying no is to present the financial costs and cost-benefit tradeoffs that accompany taking on additional features.

“Talk about the impact to other initiatives that are of higher value,” Rivera said. “You’re always able to frame it in an objective, quantified and often financial argument: ‘It takes too much team capacity,’ ‘It’s going to put us in technical debt,’ ‘It’s not going to help us achieve our revenue target.’”

For instance, if an idea for an additional feature would theoretically only bring in a small increase in revenue but take out a significant chunk of the operating budget, the product manager can point that out when saying no.

“Everything is based on those key performance indicators,” Rivera said. “It all comes back to some degree of satisfying the end user or the customer. By doing that, you will increase revenue by getting more customers.”

Having a company vision is your secret weapon

Product managers can’t properly prioritize demands without understanding their company priorities, so a company’s vision should be clearly articulated to its employees early on.

“It’s very important that you are investing time early in building alignment and managing expectations,” Graves said. “It’s important that, as you are thinking about what your team is going to be focused on, you’ve brought together the team to really align around those goals.”

If there isn’t internal agreement on company priorities prior to a project, product managers’ jobs can become very difficult and confusing.

“It’s much more difficult to handle the ad hoc requests that come up, because your stakeholders — who are asking you for things — may feel like you’re playing favorites, or not understand why certain things are getting investment for development and other things are not,” Graves said.

“You work to gain consensus and make sure all the gods on Mount Olympus are signed on to the vision.”

To build internal consensus around a company vision, hold a meeting with key company stakeholders, including executives and representatives from the engineering, sales and customer success departments.

“A huge part of our process is to do design-thinking workshops,” Rivera said. “You work to gain consensus and make sure all the gods on Mount Olympus are signed on to the vision. The last thing you want is for a very powerful figure to come down the hall and just blow your plans out of the water.”

Product managers face pressures from within the company in addition to demands from customers. Building consensus around the company’s vision isn’t just for managing customer expectations, but internal expectations as well.

“That’s what design thinking does,” Rivera said. “It helps to really break down the walls of ego so that people are really just building this vision together, as opposed to it being handed to them, where you’re going to get immediate political pushback.”

Corporate sponsors can come in handy

Even with internal consensus around a company vision, it can be difficult to navigate the pressures coming from different internal sources. That’s why it’s important to have buy-in from big players within the company, Rivera said.

“At the beginning, it’s important to have an executive sponsor who has your back,” he said. “A very senior player might show up very late in the game to the product strategy and want to basically tip it over — or put their thumbprint on something that actually could be counterproductive. So you want to have an executive sponsor that has your back as you go.”

Graves said gaining a better understanding of different departments’ needs and motivations can also help product managers navigate internal pressures.

“Another tool that’s important for PMs is to have clearly mapped out their stakeholders and whether those stakeholders are advocates or detractors for the product,” she said. “And then how much influence does that stakeholder have?”

A detractor is an individual who is not on board with the direction of the product. This can be perfectly reasonable — for instance, maybe the product doesn’t help their particular business unit. In these cases, Graves recommends understanding their points of view and finding ways to still make the product a win for them, although possibly in a different way than they initially wanted.

“The head of sales is going to have different goals than the head of engineering, so understanding how they win and how they lose is also important in approaching these conversations,” she said.

Saying no requires understanding the problem


The role of the product manager isn’t technical, but they do need to be technical enough to understand how much work they are agreeing to and the amount of effort required for each customer demand.

“The PM should be able to understand the consequences of what they’re asking for,” said Tim Maliyil, CEO of data security consultancy AlertBoot. “They should know the structure of the product they’re managing. What parts of the product is that going to impact? And then, for the engineers, how much time will it take to pull this off?”

Understanding these factors is crucial for knowing when to say no. Product managers are constantly weighing each potential feature’s cost against its gain, and against the costs and gains of all the other potential features.

“The PM should be able to understand the consequences of what they’re asking for.”

“Whether it’s manpower, money, whatever it may be — what’s it going to cost to make this happen?” Maliyil said.

Understanding these factors is also important for knowing what kind of “no” to give the customer.

“When you have to tell a customer, ‘No, we’re not going to build this feature,’ the answer is probably going to fall into one of two categories,” Graves said. “[One type is] no, it’s not only not on the roadmap, it’s not within the vision for where the product is headed. The other bucket is, it’s not something that’s prioritized now, but I’m interested in understanding your problem, and this could be something that later we choose to invest in.”

Say no by saying yes

Sometimes the easiest way to say no is by pointing customers to the evidence. For instance, if a feature is too complicated, product managers can simply show the customer how long it would take to build and how much it would cost.

“Honesty is really your key to freedom,” Maliyil said.

Other times, especially when there’s uncertainty about a feature, it can be worthwhile to test the concept on a small scale.

“You can make the data itself the bad guy.”

“I’d say the best way to say no is by saying yes,” Rivera said. “This is the benefit of technology today — it is inexpensive, and relatively quick, to test an iteration of an idea with users. And if you do this honestly and you set up a very good objective test, the best way to get to a ‘no’ is: ‘That didn’t work. Nobody clicked on it. We did a poll after doing an A/B test and launching that feature. Nobody wants it.’”

Rivera said having data to back up a reason for saying no is usually easier for customers to accept than empty promises to get to the feature when there is time.

“You can make the data itself the bad guy,” he said. “The classic deflection is like: ‘Oh, I’ll put it in the backlog. Maybe we’ll get to it in 10 years.’ Nobody wants to hear that.”

Product managers are not routers

“In many organizations, I’d say [product managers have] been relegated to more of a router of communication — more like a buffer than an actual advocate for both sides,” Maliyil said.

Unlike routers, product managers need to think deliberately about the information they’re given. During the course of a project, emotions can run high on all sides, and it’s the job of the product manager to keep a cool head and make decisions based on company vision and customer needs, rather than on emotion.

“The PM role is really a strategic role,” Graves said. “The core of a product manager’s function is to understand and, in some cases, to help shape the strategic vision of the business.”

“There needs to be someone making the calls based on the data, and that is you.”

Product managers don’t simply pass information between stakeholders. They make sense of the information and use it to make decisions with far-reaching consequences. Rivera said product managers should understand that they are in charge of the project and take responsibility for their decisions, good or bad.

“Avoid voting,” Rivera said. “It’s not a democracy, in this case. There needs to be someone making the calls based on the data, and that is you. Get as much input as you can, make the most informed decision you can, and admit when you’re wrong, because sometimes you’re wrong. People will trust you if you do that.”

Empathy is a strength

Empathy is also an important tool in the product manager’s toolkit.

It helps with “understanding the pain points a customer or stakeholder is trying to convey to you,” Maliyil said. “Don’t take it as an attack. You’ve got to think that they’re coming to you with a problem, and they want to work with you to fix it.”

Having empathy helps product managers understand their customers’ needs, and that, in turn, can come in handy when it’s time to say no to other people.

“Let’s say a higher-up says, ‘I need you to build that,’” Maliyil said. “You need to be a little bit like a lawyer — ‘OK, let me look into a little research. Let me reach out to a customer advocate, maybe reach out to my customer advisory board. Let me talk to them and see if they will use it.’ So that’s how you push back to a higher-up.”

“There has to be some sort of channel for the customers to feel heard.”

For large companies, or consumer-facing companies, product managers may not have the option to maintain personal contact with all customers, but it still makes sense to try to keep customers in the loop in other ways.

“It’s important to be transparent and direct, but you also need to be tactful and empathetic,” Graves said. “There has to be some sort of channel for the customers to feel heard, and it’s important that there’s also a channel for the company to respond.”

This could be as simple as a regular newsletter to keep customers updated. For product managers, work is a balancing act, but ultimately everything comes down to understanding people’s needs, especially those of the customers.

“As a product manager, you represent two major players here,” Rivera said. “One is the business, of course. But the other person you’re working for is the customer, or whoever is the end user. If you can master understanding their psychographics, their pain points and their needs better than anyone else on the team, that is the role of a product manager — you are to know the customer inside and out.”

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