The Secret to Successful B2B Product Management

Ashley Wali
Aug 12, 2019 · 5 min read

What’s the secret to being a successful B2B product manager? Is it a stellar onboarding experience? Laser focus on your activation and retention metrics? Important, yes, but what if I tell you it’s something much more nebulous? Something a lot simpler, and a lot harder to be disciplined about. What if I tell you it can transform how you look at problems, categorize your users, and prioritize solutions?

Let’s start with some background.

The Experience Matters

There’s an antiquated idea — that’s still holding on in some circles — that design doesn’t matter for B2B companies. Enterprise software was made to be functional, not usable, right?

In a world where acquiring new customers is costly (5x to 25x the cost of retaining customers, according to HBR), paying attention to your user experience matters. Churn comes from unmet expectations, and one facet of this is the usability of your tool.

Users have been trained to expect functional and beautiful experiences as consumers, so they expect the same attention to detail with their work tools. Letting them down can have disastrous results for your marketing ROI.

Brand loyalty goes down as choice goes up, especially in a world where “data portability” is now a term known outside the InfoSec community. We’re also seeing a flood of new SAAS solutions hit the market every year, and humans are nothing if not consistent in thinking that the grass is always greener.

Thanks to GDPR and follow-on privacy regulations like those in California and Washington, consumers are being trained to expect access to and control over their data. Where consumers expect something in their personal lives, their expectations as a procurement officer or budget holder will soon follow in the work world. And when data portability becomes a right rather than a luxury, switching costs fall to almost nothing.

That’s all to say that building a great user experience is not gold-plating; it is crucial to the survival of B2B companies.

B2B Users are a Diverse Crowd

Even if you’re on board with the importance of a solid user experience for your B2B users, you still likely face the reality that your users are not homogenous. Many B2B product managers have a buyer persona who has high-level needs around cost savings, automation, and innovation, which may be very different from the more transactional needs of your day-to-day users.

B2B product managers who don’t deeply understand the different user types interacting with (or buying and never directly using) their product face a frustrating and winding path to success. This is different than most B2C applications, where you’re targeting users who may be in different cohorts but who ultimately have the same needs and goals from your product.

In our product, for instance, we have clear buyers and users. Some buyers are also users, but not all. Amongst users, we may have power users in the form of professional researchers, who use our software to create reports, edit highlight reels, and manage the specifics of their projects. We have marketers and product managers, who need a lightweight, simple tool for connecting with their users and who want quick answers with little work. We also have occasional users who might drop in on an interview to see how the project is going, but who have no intention of interacting with the software outside of consuming the final insights.

You are (Definitely) Not your User

All product leaders know not to trust their opinions and preferences in their product because they’re too close to it. In B2B, the opposite is often true…you’re too far away from the use case to make solid assumptions about what your users need in your product.

I know product managers in major cities building logistics software for shipping companies and freight trucks. While they know software, they don’t know enough about the challenges and opportunities of being an over-the-road truck driver to make solid decisions about the direction of their product. It’s only by interviewing, observing, and immersing themselves in the world of their user that they’re able to uncover where they can make the biggest difference.

This one is a controversial topic, so I’ll stop to say that OF COURSE there are exceptions to this rule. Some PMs come out of the industry that they end up building solutions for, and their knowledge of the processes, motivations, and challenges of the industry is their secret sauce. But for many PMs, especially generalists, they’re able to jump into a new industry and start adding value precisely because they remember to bust through their assumptions as they’re ramping up.

So What’s the Secret?

To build great products for a diverse user base that you might not have anything in common with, you need a little thing that makes a big difference: empathy.

I’ve talked about how to make empathy stick in your product team as well as the evolution that I see PMs go through with regards to empathy, but I haven’t yet backed up to talk about why it matters or how you know you’re there.

In Every “Dumb User,” There is an Opportunity

I have run into clients who fundamentally don’t understand how the internet works or the role of a web browser. Many of us watched, a bit dumbfounded, at the now-infamous interchange between Senator Orrin Hatch and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg on how Facebook could stay in business while offering a free service to its users. “Senator,” Mr. Zuckerberg explained, sounding puzzled, “we run ads.”

To a PM steeped in tech culture, moments like these can feel farcically out of touch with the modern world. The hidden truth, though, is that it’s a much bigger part of the modern world than you might think. For your users, all of whom use your products as the means to accomplish something else, the underpinnings of technology or your business model just aren’t important.

It’s only in keeping this front and center that you can align your solutions with the problems that matter to your user.

In every SMH moment, there’s an opportunity to lean into the heart and mind of your user and meet them where they are.

The Empathy Checklist

How do you know if you’ve got empathy for your users? If you approach your users with respect, curiosity, and an openness to being wrong, you’re on the right track. If you come into user interactions with assumptions, dismissive of their problems, know that you’ve got some room to grow.

In Summary

All product management is hard, and B2B PMs face some unique challenges that can make the job even tougher. By keeping empathy front and center, you can connect with a diverse user group that you may not have much in common with, ramp up quickly on a new industry, and design solutions that not only hook, but keep, your users.

Ashley Wali

Written by

Product leader @discuss.io. Inspired by @adilwali, our 2 feisty boys, & the beauty of the PNW. Passionate about equality, travel, & embarrassing romance novels.

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