100 Lessons and Spicy Takes on Being a Software Product Manager

It’s hard for me to believe, but I’ve been working in the software tech industry for 10 years now. For the vast majority of that time, I’ve either been a product manager, or a founder with a heavy focus on product.

With the trend on Twitter of 1 like = 1 insight or spicy take, I decided to jump on board the trend and do one on product management. It appears to have resonated:

So 100,000+ impressions later, it seems that it really resonated with people.

With the ephemeral nature of Twitter, I wanted to preserve those takes for easy future reference, so this post represents them.

100 Insights + Spicy Takes on Software Product Management

There’s some great discussion around many of the tweets, so I encourage you to check out all the discussions here.

The trick to tell if there’s a reply to a tweet is to look at the speech bubble in the bottom left corner of each tweet:

look to the number of comments to see if there's a response to that tweet

If the tweet says 1 in that area (like Tweet 2/), then the only reply is my subsequent tweet in the thread. If it’s more (like  Tweet1/) then there are replies to click on and see.

Anyways, let’s get onto the takes:

1/ Being a PM is a job of influence. The best PMs are the mayor of their area of work. You need to be able to build coalitions, and get buy in from a wide group of people.
That doesn’t happen by accident. It takes work.

2/ The best PMs are autodidacts. They’re constantly curious and always learning.If you don’t like learning lots of new skills from sales, to marketing, to negotiation, to EQ, to design, don’t be a PM.

3/ PMs are also like a point guard playing basketball. Done right, they set up many others to look great.A strong collaboration makes your designers create better designs, and the engineers ship a better product faster. Those assists don’t show in the score sheet but matter.

4/ PMs also are limited by their team. If you are missing key players or have weak players at other positions, it will often look like the PM is weak, because they have to cover or fill in gaps.Two of the toughest are PMs w/o good design help or lacking a good tech lead partner

5/ There are many ways to become a PM. You cannot major in product management, so everyone gets their start different ways.If you think you want to be a PM, look into how people you follow did it. You may be surprised how varied it is.

6/ The best ways to become a PM:
A) Excel at a growing company & ask to transition (seen it work great for marketers, customer success, design, & engineers)
B) Do a side project or startup to show you can PM (this eliminates the chicken or egg problem of having never been a PM)

7/ Getting an MBA won’t help you become a good PM.It won’t make you a better PM if you already are one, either.If you want to become a GM at a company, an MBA makes sense, but it doesn’t help product managers.

8/ I’m sure the previous tweet is going to get some replies from a Sloanie, HBS grad, or Stanford MBA.As is always the case on Twitter, exceptions always get mentioned, but do not disprove the general statement. Save $200k if you love PM and don’t get an MBA.

9/ Most of the worst PMs I know or have heard about are either former engineers or MBAs.
– MBAs often bring ego + don’t want to do the real work (talking to customers, iterating, etc)
– Engineers can struggle with the interpersonal & relationship building side of PM’ing.

10/ If the sales team is at war with your product team, or people try to go straight to your engineers for pet requests, those are your fault.The #1 mistake that good PMs make is not building relationships across departments. Fix it with peer 1 on 1s: https://jasonevanish.com/2015/09/24/product-managers-peer-one-on-ones/

11/ The #1 mistake mediocre & bad PMs make is not talking to customers.It’s scary getting outside the building, and they instead choose to be master BS artists.If this is you, change your ways in 2020. I wrote how-to’s I wish I had when I started: https://jasonevanish.com/product/

12/ There are 31 flavors of product managers. An A+ PM at one company would be terrible for another company.If you’re hiring, recognize this could explain a short stint on a resume, and if you’re job hunting, don’t apply to PM jobs that don’t match your skills & strengths.

13/ PMs fit differently based on a variety of factors such as:
– The business model (Ecommerce vs. SaaS vs. Ad tech are dramatically different jobs)
– Company stage (Think public company vs. Series B vs. Seed)
– Company culture (How are decisions made? What do they value?)

14/ The interview process for product management is completely broken. 

15/ There would be no need for a whole market for products to “Master the PM Interview” if the interview process was actually good at most companies.

16/ The best interviews see if you can do the work *you’ll be hired to actually do.*Unfortunately, most PM interviews are veiled in hypotheticals that have nothing to do with the job, and are basically trick questions.Mastering trick ?s has nothing to do w/ being a good PM.

17/ Most product teams don’t check their applicant tracking system nor respond to applicants who apply cold.This is ironic given the trend of calling PMs “Mini-CEOs”, and recruiting is one of a CEO’s most important jobs… 🙄

18/ If you want to get a response on an application, get an intro into someone on the team.Don’t have a network? Search LinkedIn for lower level PMs. No one asks them for help, so they’re more likely to respond & have a call/coffee to discuss the culture, then refer you in.

19/ The first PM hire at startups is almost always a sacrificial lamb at the altar of learning for the founder.Read more why and what to do about it here: https://jasonevanish.com/2019/04/28/second-1st-pm/

20/ The best job if you love startups is to be the *2nd* first PM hire, as you get all the opportunity, equity, and influence…all thanks to the PM that came before you.They died on hills, and helped the company learn what they actually wanted.

21/ Most customers don’t report bugs or give feedback.They just quietly suffer, or churn and then maybe tell you. 

22/ I follow the “Rule of 10:” If 1 customer has an issue, there are probably 10 more that didn’t say anything. 

23/ If you have an issue, get in the habit of sending a note to those affected. It’s good service AND it helps you quantify issues.I’ve had many engineers be surprised when they see that 2-3 tickets is actually affected TONS of users. Getting a list to email helps quantify it.

24/ Customers don’t care how hard (or easy) a feature was.All they care about is if you solve their problem or make it possible for them to do what they want to do.

25/ Quick Wins (aka – simple things you can do to make the product better for your customers) is a great way to let your team recharge and build some momentum after shipping a big feature.Sometimes customers are more excited by this than your big feature.

26/ Product/Market Fit exists for both buyers and end users.You can have one and not the other, and it will cause your business to sputter.

27/ Never become a PM at a company where the founders don’t understand what a PM does. You’ll get no credit for wins + all the blame for any problems.Fateful last words include “that feature went really well, but I have no idea how you contributed” & “Why can’t you just…” 🤦‍♂️

28/ Jeff Bezos was right when he said this:

“The thing I have noticed is when the anecdotes and the data disagree, the anecdotes are usually right. There’s something wrong with the way you are measuring it.”

The problem is most PMs don’t talk to enough customers to tell this is the case.

29/ There’s nothing like doing product management in Silicon Valley. There, PMs are mostly considered vital and valuable parts of the company. This changes who does the job, and how they work.

30/ If you want to be world class at product management, you need to work a few years in Silicon Valley for this reason, and many more.Being around that many product obsessed, super smart people, will level you up rapidly.

31/ A long time product consultant in NYC told me, “NYC product is 20 years behind the Valley.” That feels directionally accurate.I think there are *many* smart, great PMs in town, but it’s structural/cultural issues that undervalue product here: https://medium.com/@Bosefina/how-to-be-a-product-driven-company-in-nyc-342fd689877e

32/ The mascot of NYC PMs would be Eeyore.The amount of self deprecation I’ve seen/heard that really feels like “haha, it’s funny, but I’m actually sad about it” has been one of my biggest surprises.Product is undervalued in many cases here!

33/ One of the hardest remote jobs is being a PM.Collaboration and innovation are where the magic happens, and that’s the greatest weakness of remote work.There are ways around some of it, but it takes a lot of conscious effort. 

34/ If you’re a remote PM, use any flights or face time you get to try to solve your biggest challenges.Nothing remote can compare to the energy of being in the room at a white board with your designer and engineer(s) working on a problem. 

35/ Also document, document, document, and share, share, share.You can’t walk by your pod and tell them about a great customer interview, so you need to find other ways to share what everyone needs to know…in a light weight way they’ll actually read/see.

36/ On the flip side, remote can help bring out some of the best work of your designers and engineers as they can more easily get into deep work and focus.Try doing that in an open office…

37/ The #1 skill to develop to be a better PM is to become a better writer.

38/ Writing touches everything you do as a PM:
– Product specs
– Updates to customers
– Updates to stakeholders
– Note taking in meetings
– Notes and takeaways from customer interviews
– Writing good survey questions
– Communicating to your team

39/ To become a better writer as a PM, write more:
– Blog posts
– Internal documents
– Tweets + Tweetstorms ;)
– Personal notes to collect and organize your thoughts.
– Emails and experiment with templates you use.

40/ The other way to become a better writer is to read more. Read regularly, and you’ll find your vocabulary gets stronger and you always learn.

41/ My favorite books to help you write #1: Tested Advertising Methods amzn.to/2sHa6OH
– Copywriting goes everywhere from the marketing site, to help docs, to inside your product
– You probably have to write some of that
– The lessons apply beyond that
H/t @LarsLofgren

42/ My fav books to help you write #2: Never Split the Difference amzn.to/2Ff5HoL
– You do a lot of negotiating as a PM. This teaches you a better approach whether working with an angry customer, negotiating with another team for resources, or deftly handling your boss.

43/ My favorite books to help you write #3: How to Win Friends & Influence People amzn.to/2ZJOLQG
– PMs are in the people business and this is the gold standard to working well with other people. This applies as much to what you write as what you say.

44/ The best way to earn respect from an engineer is to have data to back up what you tell them. Show them the customer interviews & quotes, or the analytics/data and you’ll engage them much more in what they’re building.This wins many more people over than a batle of opinions.

45/ The easiest trap to fall into as a PM is to ship things and never check the results of your work.Set a reminder for yourself 2 weeks or 2 months (depending on your company stage) later to go back and see what worked or didn’t. 

46/ Setting up analytics and measurement of a new feature is as important as making sure all the buttons are where they should before launching your feature.It should be part of your product spec. (I like @joshelman‘s approach for that https://jasonevanish.com/2014/06/03/how-to-write-a-product-thesis-to-communicate-customer-needs-to-design-and-engineering-teams/

47/ Ship early, ship often.

48/ I follow the “Estimation Rule of 2X:” Any project’s estimate is always off by 2X.
– When it’s 2 vs 1 day, or 2 instead of 1 hour, it’s not a big deal. However, the bigger the project, the more brutal this becomes (4 weeks vs 2 weeks, 4 months vs 2 months is a problem).

49/ PMs should be tool agnostic. Whatever your engineers will actually use and keep up to date is the project management tool you want to use.The tool you love for the burn down and gannt charts is not the hill to die on if all your engineers hate it.

50/ “Your startup either dies, or lives long enough to end up using Jira.”
This saying I used to hear 5 years ago still seems true. 

51/ PMs should be infinitely curious. If you see something you don’t understand you should want to investigate.
– Look into the analytics, ask the engineer to explain why, ask what motivated your designer to go that direction. You’ll learn, and it often sharpens their thinking. 

52/ If you’re a Senior PM or higher, you should be mentoring people inside and out of your company.It’s great to give back AND it will make you a better PM.

53/ Every time I help someone as a mentor, I walk away with a few new ideas and usually a reminder of a few things I know I should do that are slipping.

54/ It’s never been easier to get a mentor. A few ways people have reached me, and I’ve gained help:
– DMs on Twitter
– Well crafted Linkedin messages
– Cold emails after they read my blog and found my email address on there.
– Replies to blog post emails from subscribers.

55/ Creating a bonus structure for PMs is a very risky move*. If your company’s needs to change, you want PMs to be flexible, but that’s hard to convince them if their bonus says otherwise.* Exception = E-commerce it can work since it’s easier to have a consistent target.

56/ Being pedantic is a terrible trait for a PM.Care about the details, but in a tactful way. Know what hills to die on, and how to have both strong opinions, *and* loosely hold them.

57/ The art of knowing where and how to draw the line between high quality and shipping on time is one of the hardest skills to develop as a PM.Those that master it are worth their weight in gold.I like @Wayne‘s essay on this: https://blog.usejournal.com/want-to-build-an-incredible-product-strive-for-the-delta-of-wow-f184b716af18

58/ Being a founder, even if your startup fails, makes you a much better PM.
– You appreciate other roles more as you likely wore their hats
– You learn to ruthlessly focus on the metric that matters most
– You learn to deal with extreme constraints & the creativity that breeds

59/ A good PM is like glue & grease:
– Glue to hold things together and fill in gaps
– Grease to make things run more smoothly and adapt to changes

60/ Feature voting tools are for mediocre PMs.

61/ Show me a feature voting site for a product and I’ll show you a graveyard of unanswered customer requests and a lot of noise.

62/ Show me a product team that relies on data from feature voting, and I’ll show you a team that thinks they know their users a lot better than they actually do.Some day I’ll finally turn this into a blog post it deserves:

63/ Companies that struggle with endless debates about their products and roadmap typically are arguing opinions, which ends up creating lots of politics and the most important person in the room making calls.

64/ Companies focused on their customers settle their debates one of two ways:
1) They ask “What’s best for the customer?”
2) They plan an experiment or table the discussion until they get some data/evidence

65/ Disagree & commit is an essential skill for any PM.You need to do it sometimes, and so does everyone else on your team.The key to avoiding resentment is to measure the results of the decision. Everyone is wrong sometimes, and that’s okay as long as you fix it later.

66/ Great product leaders are unsung heroes: Their teams get all the credit if it works, and if it doesn’t, they are the ones to have to answer.

67/ Getting customers to talk to is hard and interviewing them is time consuming, which is why so many PMs rarely do it.

68/ Getting customers to talk to you is a team effort:
– Get customer success to forward you customers with issues in areas you’re fixing
– Reach out yourself (email, @intercom, etc)
– Partner with marketing on surveys & reach out to interesting answers.
– Talk to sales leads

69/ Joining a company to change their product culture is like signing up to climb Everest in shorts.It may be possible, but there’s a good chance you’ll die trying.

70/ Product managers pre-product/market fit have a 10X harder job than those post-product/market fit.

71/ The stronger the product/market fit, the easier it is for any product manager to look smart and deliver wins.A lot will be obvious, and in many cases, anything you build will work.

72/ Being hired as a PM to help a startup with a solution looking for a problem always leads to failure.The power dynamics and negative inertia are too great. Also, the founders should have been figuring it out, not a hired gun with 0.5-2% of the company.

73/ Some PM jobs are really project management jobs with a power struggle left off of the job description.

74/ Sharing wins and happy customer quotes are great ways to give your team a jolt of energy.We have a Slack channel dedicated to it at Lighthouse called #HappyManagers specifically because of this. Anyone can scroll through to read stories, quotes, and testimonials.

75/ When something is broken, the best way I’ve found to motivate a designer or engineer is to share the customer’s words directly.It’s one thing when you say it, but when they hear a customer say it, it hits their ego differently in a good way so they want to fix.
Side note: My favorite story of exactly this happening was also one of my proudest moments as the PM at KISSmetrics: web.archive.org/web/2012112303…

76/ Beautiful designs aren’t always usable or accessible designs.

77/ The #1 thing I’ve always had to remind designers I’ve work with is “Do you think a 50 year old with bifocals can read that”?

78/ McDonald’s theory is a great way to get your team unstuck:Suggest something you know will be rejected to get you back on the track of what you all do want. medium.com/@jonbell/mcdon…

79/ Harsh truth: The best products don’t always win.Sales & Marketing machines can be just as dominant, if not more so.

80/ In some markets, adding more features to demo & put on your pricing checklist is more valuable and important than any of the features being particularly good or useful.

81/ Tech debt doesn’t matter right until it might kill you.

82/ Adding another feature won’t help your company win if the ones you already have are broken.

83/ Tech debt is rarely talked about publicly, but many well known startups (both successes and failures) have faced major reckonings because of it.

For example:

84/ As a rule of thumb, once you’re onto something charging to or past P/M fit, spend 20% of your time on tech debt.This keeps it from crippling you and halting all progress (or killing you) later.A nice overview is here: https://blog.crisp.se/2013/10/11/henrikkniberg/good-and-bad-technical-debt
And the legendary Marty Cagan wrote about it here: https://svpg.com/engineering-wants-to-rewrite/

85/ My favorite way to pay down tech debt is to revisit/iterate on old features. This way you squeeze in a few quick wins (remember tweet #25?) along with fixing a troubled, decaying part of the product.It also helps keep the engineer(s) working on it thinking about customers.

86/ I knew @SlackHQ Channels could help with customer bugs and issues, but I was pleasantly surprised how well it also works to source customer development & product feedback fast.This is an amazing post on the topic from founder/CEO @stewart: https://slackhq.com/shared-channels-growth-innovation

87/ Always be iterating on your processes. What worked for a small team or company will break as you grow.Fortunately, said breaks are predictable: https://getlighthouse.com/blog/company-growth-everything-breaks-25-employees/

88/ The best way to iterate on your process is to make it a habit:
– Post Mortems (even when things go well)
– Peer 1 on 1s to get individual/private perspectives
– Ask for feedback after a ticket is closed (What can I do differently to make that easier/better next time?)

89/ The best way to scale being a customer driven company is to get everyone involved.You can’t be everywhere, but you can teach bits and pieces to others. Teach them how to ask a good followup question over email, or to do some of their own interviews.

90/ You need thick skin as a PM. You will fail and need to find another way. You will take more blame than you probably deserve.I’ve interviewed and been rejected by more companies than you’d ever guess. Lost many deals. Been flaked on by customers over and over. It happens 🤷‍♂️

91/ Focus groups are a disaster. Customer development is *one* customer at a time.You need to hear their individual stories and situations, not group think.

92/ Remember what Steve Jobs said on simplicity:“Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end”The best solution is usually not the first idea. Keep pushing to get it right to unlock magic.

93/ Sometimes the best move is to kill a feature, not add another.

94/ My favorite way to learn is to read based on the biggest challenge I’m currently facing.This insures you immediately apply it to your work…and I find also motivates you to finish reading faster.I’ll share some good places to start after #100

95/ The product tours industry feels universally overpriced.None of them show you how to calculate ROI for what they charge, and typically it’s a small part of successful onboarding + educating users.

96/ Onboarding is really hard.- Customers don’t read.
– They skip overviews and tours.
– They quickly get bored of videos…then complain they “don’t get it.”And it’s still your job to help them get to the AHA! moment.

97/ The best way I’ve learned to make onboarding work is to use a lot of “lead bullets” mixed with experimentation.A little bit of everything makes it so there’s something for everyone.Ideally, you’ll simplify & help them focus on 1 thing, but that can be resource intensive.

98/ @intercom is the best product category for startup PMs since the development of modern analytics changed how we measure and made data accessible to everyone.

99/ Some mistakes you can learn from others and avoid. Others end up being learned the hard way.Be nice. What’s obvious to you may be a difficult lesson for others, and vice versa.This is especially true in product given how varied all our backgrounds are.

100/ Time management is a crucial skill as a PM; know where all your hours go every day & make sure you get the important stuff done.This video is a great way to conceptualize that:

Further Reading:

Want to learn more PM skills, my reply here gives a few people to start with:

– Read lots of books. My favorites by category here: jasonevanish.com/bookshelf
– Rafael Balbi: Who are some great PMs you regard from the west coast? I’ve been interested to learn more about these differences.

A few off the top of my head (some aren’t PMs anymore or were pm minded founders but their blog posts and presentations are still gold) @cagan @joshelman @BrianNorgard @rrhoover @jmj @hnshah @Pv @seanrose @Bosefina @cindyalvarez @DesignersGeeks @wfjackson3 @ShaanVP @danolsen

Also would add @kennethn  and his great blog: kennorton.com/newsletter/ and the classic post by @bhorowitz

Search for their blogs and you’ll find gold mines.

I’d also add that part of it is company structure / culture, not a difference in skills. It sets you free to do things that in a different structure and valuing of product that wouldn’t allow or would be serious upstream swimming.

I’ve dedicated the last 5 years of my life to helping people be better managers.

If you have a big team to manage, sign up for a trial to make your 1 on 1s organized, motivating, and accountable, or tell your eng. manager to check us out: getlighthouse.com

Learn something? Give this tweetstorm a Retweet or a Share:

The Two Most Important Words for Product Managers to Use

What does your sales team think of you? Does customer success enjoy their conversations with you? Or do you feel animosity and tension with them?

And what about with customers?

How about the squeaky wheel who sends in feature requests regularly, or the enterprise customer with contractual promises?

Product management is about relationships.

One of the biggest mistakes I see otherwise good product managers make is not managing internal and external stakeholders well.

Rather than building collaborative relationships, where everyone feels like they’re on the same team heading in the same direction, they sow seeds of tension.

As a product manager, any communication issues fall on you. It’s your job to build bridges, even on challenging terrain.

You can do that through a variety of tactics:

  • Product advisory boards, and regular check ins with key customers.
  • Peer 1 on 1s with key sales, customer success, account management, and other department leaders.
  • Regular updates, training, and collaboration on collateral creation for new and updated features.
  • Following the timeless of advice of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People.

Throughout those conversations, both internally and externally, there are two words to always remember: “Not yet.”

Let’s dive into the nuance of how 4 letters can make such a big difference…

“Not Yet”: The Two Most Important Words for Product Managers to Use

Remember when you were a little kid and you wanted something and you asked your mom or dad? How did you feel when they said “no”?

Chances are you were pretty unhappy.

We’re not so different when we grow up.

Just say no…to saying, “No.”

As a product manager, when you tell customers and colleagues, “no”, it creates problems for you now and in the future.

No is denying what they want.

No makes them feel unheard.

No is a wall between you and them.

And most importantly, no is the end of a conversation.

Where do you go after you say, “no, we’re not doing that”? You can possibly explain why, but the other person is likely already thinking about how they can either convince you to change your mind or tuning you out in frustration.

The Power of “Not Yet”

Four letters. That’s all that separates “No” and “Not yet”, but in reality it makes all the difference.

Not yet is, “we might do that down the line…”

Not yet is, “I hear you, but…”

Not yet is hope.

And most importantly, not yet is the start of a conversation.

“Not yet” builds empathy

If you’ve ever learned about the power of using “and” instead of “but” in conversation, you know that a simple change in word choice actually leads to a larger transformation.

By changing the word you use, you change the entire nature of your discussion the rest of the way.

When you say, “not yet,” it lends itself to explaining why. This is powerful because it helps them understand the choices you’ve made.

When it’s an internal stakeholder, explaining why can help them see the other priorities. I’ve lost count of the number of times that once I’ve explained what we’re doing right now already they suddenly are willing to wait on their request; you may even be working on something important to them.

Meanwhile, with customers, it’s an opportunity to build excitement and engagement. Maybe you can’t give them what they asked for right away, but you can tell them about some other things in the pipeline.

Often, a couple of the things you’re doing are also important to the customer. You can then offer them the opportunity to provide feedback on the feature as it’s developing, or early access. Either way, it ends up feeling like they’re coming away with something, even if it’s not what they originally asked.

Show your work.

A key part of all of this is that you’re showing your work to others. You don’t need to explain the whole roadmap, but even a small snippet can help people see there’s a solid foundation to the decisions you’ve made.  It also demonstrates the hard work and rigor of the product team:

  • Data driven: Good PMs know their numbers, so you can explain to them how the feature they asked for may have a much smaller impact than the current features you’re working on.
  • Customer focused: Whether you have an enterprise contract with deadlines due in 30 days, or are finally delivering on the #1 most requested feature, showing that what you’re doing is backed by real customer insights shows you’re a PM that listens to customers.
  • Strategic: Great PMs see the big picture, and help others see it, too. Concisely explaining strategy comes with practice, so use these “not yet” conversations to practice clearly explaining how the new API opens up thousands of leads a month, or how the onboarding improvements will drive more revenue to hit key company goals.

When you show some of your cards to your colleagues and customers, you help them understand your decision making process. While they may not always agree, they’ll often respect the decisions you’ve made a lot more than when all they heard was, “No.”

In my experience, when you show you have data, strategy, and customer insights backing up your decisions and bets, your colleagues and customers will trust you. Just like they expect you to trust them to do their jobs well, they’ll see plenty of evidence to believe in you as well.

Save your relationships!

This may seem like a small thing, but I can tell you from experience,  it matters a lot. No may feel like the expedient way to handle requests, but it comes with a long term cost.

Over time, saying “no” leads to resentment and may sour relationships. People you want to partner with to make launches successful and for everyone to hit their numbers suddenly avoid you, except when they want to demand and override your No’s. They may even try to go around you and talk straight to a designer or engineer to get what they want.

And since you represent the product team, it can even lead to inter-departmental drama and rivalries. Rather than engineering and sales being partners, they become enemies, with each side criticizing the other. I’ve seen and heard it too many times, and it’s really the fault of product managers on those teams for it becoming like that.

You can avoid being that kind of cautionary tale by taking the time to regularly communicate with other teams, stakeholders, and key customers. When you meet and talk with them, remember to use “not yet” so those relationships flourish and they understand your decisions.

Never underestimate the power of using the right words.

How to Write Product Updates that Delight Customers & Reduce Churn

If you launch a feature and you don’t tell anyone, did you really launch it?

Okay, maybe the “tree falls in a forest” analogy isn’t perfect, but you probably get the point: you need to tell your customers when you make improvements.

But how do you do it in a way that customers will care?

I’ve seen dozens of ways for people to do product updates over the years, including these common ones:

  • Popping up in app to tell them (think Intercom-style, or a product tour)
  • Posting on your company blog
  • Emailing to everyone who has an account
  • Passing it to sales or account management to tell customers
  • Updating a change log that lists all updates over time
  • Praying they stumble upon the changes

Of all of those, my favorite is the semi-regular email to customers.

I like it for a few reasons:

  1. Flexible medium: I can write and include images and gifs to clearly show what’s new.
  2. Non-interruptive:  Unlike pop ups in app, they can read this when they have time, instead of dismissing it when they’re in the middle of something in your product.
  3. Reminder we exist: People get busy. You are not the center of their universe. An email about product improvements can get people back into your product they haven’t logged into in a while because they see you in their inbox.

For the past nearly 10 years, I’ve been sending product updates at the SaaS companies I’ve worked at and founded. Because of the structure I follow, I’ve seen it help build stronger relationships with customers, reduce churn, and help everyone feel more product momentum.

Today, I’ll show you my process so you can experience those benefits with your customers, too.

 

How to Write Product Updates that Delight Customers & Reduce Churn

First and foremost, credit where credit is due. There is an AWESOME Tweetstorm from Steven Sinofsky on this subject you should go read now:

Okay, so now that you read his 20 tweets, you understand why this is important, and the pitfalls to avoid. Now, let’s talk about how to actually write one.

A few assumptions:

  • You talk to customers: If you talk to customers, all of this is easy to do. If you don’t, not only is this very hard to do, but you are a disgrace to product managers everywhere. Worst of all, your designers and engineers are rolling their eyes at you. Jump here on my blog to reform your ways if you need to start doing so.
  • You’re data informed: Quantitative numbers are not everything, but they’re very important. They help you understand how many people are affected by a problem, the total addressable audience for a feature, and measure the impact of a change. Having these numbers is key for both internal buy in and explaining things to your customers.
  • You have buy-in: The bigger your company, the more stakeholders you need to manage. It’s good to get things done, and it’s also good to keep people in the loop who also interact with customers or care about this. Use your best judgment on who may want to see what you’re doing. If you get resistance, try to get support for an experiment of doing them.

If you’ve done those 3 things, you’re ready to apply these tactics to make an awesome product / feature update.

1) Start with a “Thank You”

Every product update I take the time to write out a list of thank yous to customers that took time to report bugs, share feedback, answer questions, or do customer development interviews.

This costs you *nothing*, but can mean a lot.

First, you’re letting people know you were really listening. It reminds them that their input matters and the time they took out of their day to email you, hop on a call, or beta test a feature was worth it.

It also creates a reinforcing loop:

  • You thank someone for feedback.
  • Others see that you thanked people for feedback and it gets them thinking about giving feedback.
  • Coworkers see their colleague’s name and talk about it, think about using the product more, and consider giving feedback as well.
  • Next month, the list grows, and you have more people to thank.

Immediately after I give thank you shout outs, I also then remind people just how easy it is to give us feedback, so I teach more customers what to do:

Remember: You want a product people LOVE or HATE.

Silence is your enemy.

Make more people care by letting them know you’re listening. The feedback and problems they share help you build a better product, and improve adoption throughout a company or network.

 

2) Tell your story

Every product has a mission and vision. As a product manager, you need to understand and lead that vision. It should impact everything you do, including what you write in your product updates.

The best way to manage expectations with customers is to guide them on the journey of your product.

Ask yourself questions like:

  • Where is our product heading? What is the big picture?
  • Why are we heading in that direction?
  • How does our direction help our customers be more awesome?
  • What won’t we be doing? Why not those things?

As you explain each update and change, you should keep those questions in mind. Make sure what you tell people aligns with that goal.

For example, with Lighthouse, our focus is on making managers great. We know they’re busy, so things like speed and performance in our product is as important as a new, shiny feature. We need to work reliably for them.

That meant that when we had a product outage due to Mandrill failing, we decide to switch providers to Postmark. Here’s how we framed that:

tell a story to your customers

Obviously, this is a very simple version of a story. For new, big features, there’s *a lot* more I would speak to explaining how we think it fits their workflow, why it matters, and how it fits into everything they do.

 

3) Explain your reasoning

While telling your story is important, it’s also helpful to have a rational side to it. What was the motivation for this decision?

If you’re doing product management right, you already wrote a product spec or product thesis that explains to your internal team why you’re choosing to work on this feature next. You should translate that same quantitative and qualitative data to a version that makes sense to share with your customers.

As Sinofsky points out, if you don’t give people a reason, they’ll make one up. So plan to give them a good one.

A feature can be commonly requested, but you don’t build it because it doesn’t fit your vision and mission. A feature can also be less commonly requested, but only because people can’t use your product until you build an integration they would need.

Either way, you would want to explain your decision. Tell people why you chose this of all the things you could do.

Maybe you have a Slack integration, and with all the hype and press around Microsoft Teams, you realize it makes sense to allow MS Teams users to do what you already allow in Slack.

Or maybe your company is moving up market and that means building some permissioning, and security is now more important. Your SMB customers may not be as excited, but if you can help paint the picture that, “one day your business may grow and you’ll want to use these, too” can give them a better feeling about it.  Explaining the upmarket move can then also signal to your handful of current, big customers that you are investing more in what matters to them.

If you just say, “We built some new security features” with a list of bullets, you give your customers no idea why.  Do better than that.

 

4) Paint a picture of the future

Your product update is a snapshot in time. It’s one step in an endless journey towards (or keeping) product-market fit.

As important as it is to explain what you built and launched this time, you also should paint a picture for the future. Help people understand and anticipate what is coming.

The key here is to strike a balance. You do *not* want to publish your whole roadmap; it can change too much, and you want to give yourself some flexibility.

At the same time, if people know how you’re thinking and what you’re working towards, they can help you in a variety of ways:

  • Volunteer to give feedback: If they know you’re building things they’d like, they’re more likely to reach out.
  • Good customers stay: Most people hate switching products. If they feel like you’re heading in the right direction, they’ll give you time to fix problems and get there.
  • Tell their friends/colleagues: When a product “just gets me”, you’re much more likely to rave to friends about it. By telling your story for features and where you’re heading, it builds excitement and anticipation for your best fit customers.

give a teaser of coming attractions

Strike the right balance on what you share

Giving just the right amount of detail on the future is definitely a learned skill. However, as a starting point, I like to do the following:

  • Talk about things under construction: If you’re already committed to and building something it’s pretty safe to hint at it by showing a small snippet, or explaining what it will do.
  • Focus on themes: Rather than listing the 27 things you hope to do (and could change), tell them thematically about your goal or vision. This could be like saying we’re going to “allow you to do key activities on your phone you told us are important when on the go” instead of listing mobile app features.

 

5) Seek feedback and input

You should never send something product related that is “no reply”, and this is especially the case for product updates. If people have something to say about what you built, make it as easy as possible for them to share their thoughts.

You can then use this to also recruit people for future customer development based on the upcoming features you’re going to launch, or to get people to take a survey.

The more you show you’re listening and acting in their interest, the more engaged your customer base becomes.

Creating a virtuous feedback cycle

When I joined KISSmetrics, they were getting about 10 pieces of customer feedback a week from our feedback box in the product. Unfortunately, no one on the team was replying to those for a variety of reasons.

Through being more customer driven, replying to those messages, and sending notes like I’m outlining today, we were able to boost that to getting over 50 pieces of feedback (5X) a week while the customer base grew about 2.5X. This helped us catch and fix bugs faster, and more easily get insights from our customers.

The easier you make it to give feedback, and the more you respond and act on what you receive, the more feedback you’ll get from customers.

Before long, you’ll find it’s really easy to find and recruit customers for new feature feedback and customer development.

 

one size fits none, be specific

Adapt this to fit your business and audience.

With my startup, Lighthouse, we sell to managers. They’re generally in an office and live in email. This makes an email update great.

Once a month is a good cadence for us to send an update out as it’s a couple sprints, and usually enough to fill up a good update.  It also is a frequency that resonates with our audience as they do a lot of their projects in monthly increments.

Your business may be different, so consider changes to what I’ve outlined here like:

  • Message on another platform: Can you tell them in Slack, via a small text, or somewhere else they’re most likely to check?
  • Tweak the frequency: Update your customers as often as you think fits your update cadence and your customers want them. More, shorter updates, or fewer, longer may make sense.
  • Use another format: If you’re a video platform, then video updates probably are better. If your business includes a really popular podcast, maybe a quick audio clip.
  • Show your personality: This is a huge opportunity to build your brand, so put some of your company’s personality into it. If your company is nerdy, be nerdy, if it’s playful or irreverent, be irreverent, and if you’re really formal, then your update should be, too.
  • Involve the right people: Who has the strongest relationship with your customers? They should be in the loop on this. For example, if you have account managers it may be best to have them get the word out, at which point you could draft something they can copy/paste and adapt.

The best way to get to the right format and approach for your customer is to listen and iterate. Get the right people involved in your company and start trying things.

As you build the habit of doing this, you’ll see more of what works and doesn’t so you can work towards getting messages like this from your customers:

 

How do you update your customers about changes and improvements to your product? Share your favorite tactic in the comments so everyone can learn.

Calming the Angry Elephant: How to Communicate with Customers During a Product Crisis

So you have a crisis. Your product went down. Your site or reports froze.

Emails weren’t sent…or maybe they did…100 times instead of once.

Whatever it is, your product didn’t do the job your customers hired it for.

When disaster strikes, you have two choices: Hide from it, or face it down.

Hiding will cost you.

How you react will directly affect your customer churn or renewal rates, what your customers will do (do they tweet about it? Do the offer to help?), and the morale of your team.

That’s why, if you’re the product manager, and there’s an issue with the product you’re in charge of, you need to take the lead to help communicate with your customers about it.

You can’t often do much to help engineering do their jobs, so helping with communication internally and externally can be really valuable to reduce distractions for them and show you’re doing your part.

You also then build a culture of facing problems down directly.

My team knows that if anyone finds a bug or problem, the first question will be, “who is affected?” followed by, “can you get me a list of their names and emails?” (More on this shortly).

Today, I’ll share how you can lessen the long term damage, and even earn some good will in a tough situation with your product.

What PMs should do first in a Product Crisis

Ever had a wave of upset customers mad about your product? I’ve been there.

I first learned about dealing with such issues when I was at KISSmetrics. We ran into some serious tech debt / scaling issues that led to angry tweets, lots of support tickets, and even AdWords run against us by our cutthroat competitor, MixPanel:

While there’s nothing you can say or do that will save you if the problem continues, the right message at the right time can buy you time to address it, and relieve a great deal of tension.

Here’s how to approach it:

1) Communicate internally

This is one of those times all those soft skills of being a product manager come into play:

  • Your customers are stressed: They can’t use your product as intended for the reason(s) they pay you for it.
  • Your product team is stressed: They’re scrambling to understand and resolve the issue.
  • Your company is stressed: Everyone from sales to customer success to executives will hear about a big issue. And they often won’t be able to do anything about except add more pressure to the situation.

As a product manager, you need to step up your game and work to communicate with everyone calmly and effectively.

Be a source of calm…

The first thing you need to do is relax. As leader, it’s important to be calm and under control. Understanding the problem and having a plan should give you reason to be confident when communicating internally, then later externally, about the problem.

Don’t understand the problem? Then, that’s priority one.

Ask the basics:

  • What happened?
  • Who is affected?
  • Why did it happen? (If you can get to the root cause)
  • Is it ongoing or are things back up and running?
  • What is the estimate to a fix?

If you know those basics, you can help your team by starting to communicate with those that need to be in the loop. Those can be people like the sales and customer success teams you interface with, and of course any other key stakeholders.

From there, you can start looking at how to communicate with customers.

2) Use the right level response for the size of the problem, and the size of your company

This advice applies most to small startups and businesses (1-50 employees). As you grow, you’ll likely have a more resilient product, a full marketing team to support you, and set policies to follow.

However, regardless of your company’s size, it’s very beneficial to understand what your plans would be in the event of a crisis. By the time something happens, it’s a lot harder and more stressful to come up with it on the fly.

You also want to scale your response to the size of the problem.

Find out who is affected. Only send a response to them, especially if it’s a small group

I like to send personal emails (or work with account managers/customer reps) for small groups affected. Then, for bigger groups, I’ll ask an engineer for a list of every customer affected with their name and email in CSV. That makes it easy to quickly import that list into your favorite email marketing tool to fire off such a note.

tell your boss about the product crisis

3) Always keep your boss in the loop

Finally, use your best judgment and run any plan like this by your boss.

Whether that’s the CEO, a product leader, or a founder, they’re going to have opinions, thoughts, and concerns as your product crisis unfolds. And if you’re not updating them, they’re going to ask you, or go bug your team for updates.

While we’re focusing today on communicating with your customers, many of these same approaches can also help in managing up with your boss.

As important as it is to update them, it’s also a good idea to get their approval for sending the kind of note we suggest. They can help with a quick proof read of your email before sending, so it fits the desired tone, and make them feel a part of the solution, too.

angry customers

How to Communicate with Customers During a Product Crisis

When reports started getting slow at KISSmetrics, at first we hid from the issue. We assumed it was just some edge cases, and maybe it would go away. (It didn’t.)

Instead, it got worse.

Finally, we decided we needed to say something, so our VP of Product and Engineering wrote an email we sent to customers.

And then we braced.

We didn’t know how customers would react, and so we hoped for the best and prepared for the worst.

Fortunately, the immediate response was incredibly supportive. Suddenly, the elephant in the room was gone, and we could focus on improving things for customers without fear of how they’d react.

Since then I’ve used the same approach, and learned a few key additions that have helped me with products I’ve worked on and a number of my friends do the same.

Here’s a few keys when you need to write the note:

show empathy to your customers and their situation

1) Show empathy

If your product matters, which if people buy it, it must be important to them, then showing you appreciate its importance can help a lot.

Speak to the use cases you know the problem impacts like “your ability to have those numbers for your weekly marketing meeting” or “your ability to properly prepare for your 1 on 1s with your team members.”

If you don’t know how your customers use your product, then it’s time to figure it out. Pay attention to what people are quite possibly screaming to support about that they really need, and speak their language.

When people feel heard and understood, they are more likely to be calm and understanding. When you show empathy to them, they’re more likely to show empathy for you.

Put this early in your note to customers.

self deprecation is an asset here

2) Call yourself every name in the book

This isn’t a joke. You’re showing that you know it’s bad, and you need to do better.

By bravely standing up and admitting a mistake or error happened, you show leadership.

I learned this from Dale Carnegie’s leadership classic, How to Win Friends and Influence People:

“Say about yourself all the derogatory things you know the other person is thinking or wants to say or intends to say – and say them before that person has a chance to say them.

The chances are a hundred to one that a generous, forgiving attitude will be taken and your mistakes will be minimized.”

It may seem counter-intuitive at first, but if you try it, you will be amazed at how well it works.

Caution: You win and lose as a team

Do not throw any team members under the bus. Stick to we’s and group/company wide acceptance of responsibility. Emotions will be running high as your engineering team works hard to fix it, so the last thing you want to do is to pile on more stress or frustration by calling them out.

And even if say a now-fired engineer deleted a database, or someone made a big error, your company still bears the responsibility; your company hired the wrong person, or failed to have effective safeguards to prevent such an incident. Finger pointing gets you nowhere.

Importantly, by calling yourself out, you save your customers from having to. This can prevent many angry tweets, or a large, public outcry.

Best of all, when you do self-deprecate over an issue, as Dale Carnegie teaches, there’s really only one thing left for them to do: be magnanimous and forgive you. “Oh it wasn’t *that* bad. I’ll live.”

we have a plan

3) Talk about what you’re doing about it

This is a great excuse to work with your engineering team to understand the technical side of your product better. When they’re not in full crisis mode, or they take a break, sit down with someone on the team to get a layman’s term explanation of what happened.

From there, you convey however much you and the team are comfortable stating about what happened, and then most importantly, you look to the future on what you’re doing about it.

You see this a lot in the world of engineering products. They’ll actively tweet out about an issue and then even share the post mortem publicly for other engineers to see what they learned.

While that may be overkill or not relevant to your market, explaining what you’re doing to prevent the issue going forward definitely is important.  Doing so builds confidence that this will be an isolated incident, or you can warn them, “We’re making this fix now, and a broader fix will take X weeks, so let us know if you experience issues in the coming days.”

This is the best way to end your note to customers about your product crisis.

 

Putting it all together.

Here’s an example note I sent to customers in 2017 when we accidentally emailed people 7 prep emails in the morning for each of their 1 on 1s that day. For some people that meant a busy day of 1 on 1s caused them to be sent 50+ emails in just a few minutes.

example product apology note

Now, this isn’t the biggest failure ever, but it was an opportunity to set the standard we own up to mistakes they’ll certainly notice.

And the response was exactly as we hoped:

apology note response example 1 apology note response example 1

Our response looked personal, but with a little planning, it was all automated and totally scalable to the size of that issue and others like it.

You can see a similar message here:

 

The bigger the issue, the more the detail you’d put in the note, and the more you’d be self-deprecating. Use your best judgement and fit the culture of your company for how to specifically frame it.

Update! Buffer has a fantastic example of this with a recent issue:

 

 

 

 

I also like a couple things extra they did here:

In addition to covering the basics we outlined in this post, there’s a couple extra things that the note does that are worth calling out:

  1. It’s from the CTO: Showing this issue was given attention all the way to the top of the organization.
  2. They thanked their customers: When someone helps out, it’s always good to thank them for their contribution.
  3. Reinforce behavior you want: By continually setting an example and stating how they like their customers to act, it helps reinforce customers should behave that way. This is why it’s better to say, “Thanks for your patience” instead of “Sorry for bugging you.”

Note: This is not a silver bullet.

In the end, this approach will buy you time and earn some good will. It helps you be a part of the solution with your team and sets a good precedent for communicating with your customer transparently about issues.

However, much like in baseball, “3 strikes you’re out.”

If this happens too often, no amount of well crafted apologies will save you.

You have to fix the issue and do better going forward, and then it will be a distant memory in your customers mind, and you can get back to making more awesome stuff.

How has your product team handle crises? Would love to hear your stories of what’s worked in the comments.

 


>>> Are you passionate about building great products & live in New York City?

I just moved to NY and am looking to connect with other people that love building great products to share tactics, fresh ideas, and cool products.

Interested? Reach out on Twitter (I’m @Evanish) and let’s get coffee.

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