Tools, technology and talent to develop innovative new products are more abundant and accessible today than they’ve ever been.
Even the smallest, most cash-strapped companies have access to the code platforms, software applications, powerful new marketing tools, and engineering talent to help them turn their product visions into reality.
But the problem isn’t a lack of tools to design and build new products. Nor is it the dedication of product managers and their teams. Why, then, do companies and startups have challenges releasing winning products?
Ironically, one of the primary reasons is the very fact that there has been a proliferation in the tools and knowledge for making great products. Take mobile apps for example. Sophisticated infrastructure has been developed to help businesses quickly and inexpensively create apps. This has led to an explosion of new apps, which has in turn led to both increased competition among app-makers and an ever-increasing expectations among app users.
So if product managers can expect to contend with ever-more competitive offerings entering your market, what should they do? Our suggestion is to go back to the fundamental principle of product management: Find new ways to create value for your customers.
Here are some ideas to help you place this key focus — prioritizing customer value in all of your product decisions — front and center for your product strategies.
1. Create modular offerings for your products.
Obviously the days of the thick-client software products are numbered, if not already over. With the cloud and anywhere access, you can no longer expect to sell software applications that have to be downloaded, installed, and then manually upgraded and patched on specific machines.
But even if you’ve already moved to a cloud-based model, selling software-as-a-service, you need to continue finding innovative ways to appeal to new users, and to make your offering even more valuable for existing users.
One way is by making your cloud-based software products modular.
Salesforce.com, for example, offers multiple versions of its CRM tool — from a scaled-down platform at a price point that a solopreneur or very small business might find attractive, to a much more robust enterprise-level solution designed for large corporations.
But perhaps you sell a product — software or otherwise — that doesn’t lend itself to being scaled up or down as easily as a web-based CRM tool like Salesforce.com. That’s okay. You can still find creative ways to make portions of the product available to various subsets of your users, or even to new categories of user personas not interested in the rest of your offering.
Remember, the key here is creating and adding value for your customers.
2. Find relevant vendor partnerships to extend the value of your offering.
Think about your product not as a stand-alone tool or service, but rather as part of a larger solution for your customers. This is true especially if your company sells products to other businesses.
“Don’t think of your product as a stand alone tool, but as part of a system of solutions.”
This could mean there are opportunities to partner with other companies who are selling to the same user personas you are, or who build products your target customers are already using, to make your products more valuable.
You might want to devote marketing or business development resources, for example, to finding vendors that also serve your user personas with complementary offerings — and aligning your products, marketing and even support with those companies to create more reach for both of your companies and more value for your shared customers.
When you can approach new customers not merely as a stand-alone tool, but rather as an integral part of the larger system, then you’re adding real value.
3. Develop and share APIs to make your software more useful in your customers’ actual workflows.
Another way to make your offerings more valuable to your customers is through an API that will help them integrate your products into the other commercial applications and other proprietary tools they use in their day-to-day workflows.
Considering that more businesses are outsourcing more of their workflows to SaaS tools, for example, it is becoming increasingly necessary that whatever product you are selling can easily and seamlessly integrate with the broadest possible suite of existing applications.
For example, many of the product teams who use our ProductPlan roadmap software also use JIRA for their project management. We have built features to integrate a ProductPlan roadmap directly with JIRA. This makes both ProductPlan and JIRA more valuable for our customers who use them both in their product development processes.
4. Automate more of your customers’ workflows with your products.
One of the best ways to add customer value to your products is to automate as much of the work they would have to perform as possible.
For example, some of the most powerful online marketing platforms — think Marketo and Hubspot — allow users to set up automated workflows. These could be lead-scoring systems or drip-marketing campaigns, which send out specific messages either at specific time intervals or triggered by specific actions taken by prospects or customers.
Building this type of automation into your products requires upfront work, but it allows you to solve real problems for your customers — saving them time, ensuring they don’t miss opportunities because they didn’t take an action manually, and helping them scale up their marketing efforts without worry.
5. Leverage the data you’re already compiling to create more value.
You are likely already collecting a wealth of data — terabytes and even petabytes of valuable, proprietary information on the customers you’re serving, your product’s performance, and your market in general. But most likely, that data is collecting dust.
“Leverage the data you are already collecting to create more value for your customers.”
The good news is that, as with so many other technologies over the last few years, there has been a proliferation of data analytics and business intelligence tools coming online to help you make more sense of the vast amounts of big data you’re already compiling.
Pull that data down from the attic, look it over, and find new ways to turn it into value — both for your company and for your customers.
How? Here is one idea: Publish this data in the media to build name recognition and credibility.
Why not take the data at hand — anonymized, of course, to protect your customers — and create aggregate industry data reports that you can publish in media outlets that your user personas read?
Just as Monster.com uses the data it collects to release reports on the employment scene — whether jobs are growing or contracting, which industries are leading the way, etc. — you can aggregate your own platform’s data to generate informative and interesting data reports. This can establish your company as an authority and bring you new business.
Again, you’ll be creating real value for your customers and for the market — and all from simply leveraging the data you’re collecting and storing anyway.
Your focus should always be to add customer value.
With the widespread availability and affordability of powerful new tools for design and production, you can expect ever-more competitors to your products and ever-greater expectations from your customers. That’s the challenge.
But the good news is that none of these new technologies, tools or trends can undermine the fundamental and longstanding product management principle: You win by delivering value to your customers.
As long as you keep that as your priority, your products — and you — will be successful.
What other trends do you see today? Share them in the comments section below.