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Should Your Biggest Client Guide Your Enterprise Product Strategy?

When you have a B2C software product, you do all the good things that the product management books tell you to do: work out the metrics that are going to move the numbers that matter; track those metrics; do tests to see what moves the metrics the most; and gather feedback to see what you don’t already know; and then iterate.

When you’ve got a B2B software product, where the businesses you are marketing to are smaller, self-starting businesses, who use your software in the same way that B2C users might, you can do the same things. Measure, test, iterate.

When you’ve got a B2B software product where the businesses you market to are large enterprise clients, then the risk is very different. You risk not following the well thought out product management strategies mentioned above. Instead, you end up running the risk of listening to the loudest voice in the room.

If you’ve ever worked on an enterprise level piece of software, then you know the problem being discussed here.

Classic example of listening to the loudest voice in the room

Client X is a global player. They have the largest number of individual users of your software. Their Monthly Recurring Revenue (MRR) is large in comparison to the rest of your client base. They have a harsh procurement team who regularly keeps you on your toes by threatening tenders or re-negotiating their rates.

They have a need, because their business is going through Y, which means that your software now needs to do Z. Without Z, they’ll struggle to justify the existence of your software in their business, and they’ll need it to do Z within the next three months, or else they’ll have to open up to external parties with an RFP to meet the need.

There’s a meeting in your office, driven by the Sales Director, with everyone from the CEO down involved.

“Client X is threatening to drop us, which we can’t allow. All it needs is Feature Z to keep them happy. We must do it now, or else we’ll lose so much revenue it’s not funny.”

And at that moment your product strategy might be dead in the water.

Every thing you’ve been planning for, that’s lined up in the prioritized backlog, based on well-researched data, with beautifully crafted user stories, that are all refined and story pointed with the team, can be thrown out the window, so that we can deliver Z for Client X in time for Project Y.

There’s nothing you can do as the product team is there? If the Sales Director says we’re going to lose all that revenue, then the business isn’t going to want to risk that. They aren’t going to risk upsetting their gold standard client over one feature, are they?

Of course they won’t … or will they?

This is the moment that the product team can really earn their money.

Here’s how product management guru Marty Cagan describes the job of the product manager: “to discover a product that is valuable, usable and feasible.” Fellow PM leader Martin Eriksson sees the product manager at the intersection of UX, technology, and business.

© 2011 Martin Eriksson.

If the product manager allows the voice of Client X or the Sales Director to shape the future value, usability, and feasibility just like that, are they really at the intersection of UX, technology, or business?

No. They sit slap bang in the middle of the business part of the Venn diagram.

The product team at this point gets to stick their head over the parapet and ask the question that no-one else in the business is prepared to ask … “Is Feature Z right for our product, our users, and our business, not just for Client X?”

Can you satisfy your biggest client and still meet your product management goals?

The aim of your business is to survive. You might have some modest growth targets, or heck, you might have some major growth targets. You don’t get to meet your aims if you don’t exist, so you need to stop thinking about the needs of Client X and keep your product management head on to make sure that what you’re being asked actually contributes towards the business goals.

Does Feature Z meet the goals of the business? Does it meet the goals of your wider user base? Does it help you meet a strategic product goal?

As a business, you simply cannot just agree to doing Feature Z, at the cost of the things you’ve previously agreed as a business will try to meet your goals, without knowing that Feature Z is also going to meet those goals.

Your business goals were set with a huge set of criteria in mind. What’s going to help us reach the targets we’ve told our investors? What’s going to deliver on the recurring revenue growth that we need to fund our expansion? What’s going to ensure that our client churn keeps low so our graph keeps heading upwards on the right?

I’m not saying it’s easy. It’s very hard to risk a chunk of guaranteed cash today for the promise of cash tomorrow.

But that’s why you’re a product manager. To think about what’s right for not just today, but tomorrow, and the day after, and the many days after that. You’re someone who helps move the business forward, by understanding where the future needs are.

Try not to listen to the loudest voice in the room.

Be the balanced, considered, thoughtful, analytical, commercially aware, user centric person you are, and ask the question. It might be right to build Feature Z but also, it might not be?

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Robert Drury

Robert Drury

Helping people kick start their product management career with product coaching, job application prep, and product resources at gettingstartedinproduct.com