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Negotiating Your Way Out of a Hard Product Commitment

Managing Up
Product
Internal Communication
Roadmap
Cross-Functional Collaboration

17 May, 2021

Shivan Bindal
Shivan Bindal

Head of Platform Products at AuditBoard

Shivan Bindal, Head of Platform Products at AuditBoard, believes in preventing roadblocks before they have a chance to occur.

Problem

In a previous role, I was one of four recently hired product managers. Our product head was trying to divvy up the work between us, but was having difficulty planning against a very rigid company roadmap locked by hard product commitments. These were things on the roadmap that were immutable. They were promised to clients contractually with a date attached. If we missed these deadlines, we would lose face and credibility and possibly clients.

Our roadmap was littered with obligations like these. We, as the product team, had no way of prioritizing anything that we needed to do. We recognized a need to change that about the orientation of our company. We needed autonomy so that we would be able to win market share based on the quality of our product, not necessarily over our ability to make concessions.

Actions taken

We, these four new product managers, were gradually becoming accustomed to the market. We were collaborating with analysts and customers, learning about our competitors and getting some sense of what we needed to do. It was time well-spent, but it was still a contractually-obligated six to nine months where our hands were tied by these hard product commitments.

What we tried to do is make sure not to sign up for any more of these types of commitments. The current rationale was, with our sales-oriented approach in the market, if a large enough customer asks for it, we don’t care if it will make sense. We just do it. We wanted to win the deal.

Our solution involved both internal education and working with our clients and customers externally, as well. Our goal was to get product a seat at the table during these pre-sale discussions. We wanted to have an understanding of what the actual requests were from the client and to be there to provide the trade-offs first-hand.

The conversation that we started having with our leadership and our executive team became about how we could prevent simply kicking the can down the road. We wanted to be more strategic in terms of what we were saying yes to and how we could begin to say no more often. That was a very fundamental shift in the way that product operated within the company. We were given the power to say no.

One aspect of this was learning how to deal with customers and clients when actually saying no. When communicating internally, you can generally be pretty frank and will usually be given some opportunity to justify your position. A customer, on the other hand, will be looking at the competitor who is already saying yes. We try to phrase the no less like a “no” and more like a “not yet”.

Lessons learned

  • If you sign a company in February, and they need something by April, what you promise them in April will always be competing for time against anything else also needed in the present. It just becomes a vicious cycle.
  • As a product manager, you need to have control over how the product is developed. Try to show your customers why what you’re working on in the long term is better for them than what they’re asking to be done right away. Everything comes at the cost of something else.
  • Try to transcend your role as a vendor. Strive to be a long-term strategic partner with those who you work with. Work to meet their needs today, tomorrow, and into the future.

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