The product management community often uses the term stakeholder management as shorthand for how product managers communicate with executives and investors. But the truth is every product has many different types of stakeholders. And, each type of stakeholder has different priorities and expectations for product management. Understanding how to manage different types of stakeholders will serve you well both in shipping successful products and in your product management career.
Today we’ll review a few different types of stakeholders and how best to work with them.
What is a Product Stakeholder?
First let’s back up, how do you define stakeholder anyway? In a product management context, a stakeholder can be any person or group of people who:
- Have interest in the product and its success
- Can influence product decisions
- Are impacted (directly or indirectly) by the product
With this broader understanding of what a stakeholder is, you can see there are many stakeholders across your organization, including:
- Developers, QA, and designers
- Executives and upper-level management
- Customer support and success
But stakeholders aren’t limited to the people with whom you share an office. Customers are stakeholders too. Investors and board members are stakeholders. And each different type of stakeholder comes with its own agenda and priorities. So, effectively managing stakeholders means treating each type as a unique persona.
You need to understand what drives all of the different stakeholders so that you can more successfully tailor all of your interactions with these groups. Here are some best practices to achieve this sense of alignment.
How to Manage 4 Common Stakeholder Types
Developers are stakeholders too! In most cases, your developers will want to know what the product team wants and expects from them. They’ll also want to know how the work they’re doing in any given sprint contributes to the product’s overall strategic goals.
In other words, when you’re communicating with your development team, you don’t want to jump straight into the ground-level details. You want to explain your broad strategic objectives first—and then dig deeper into how you expect those strategies to break down into specific tasks.
How to Manage Engineering Stakeholders
1. Tell them the what and the why—but not the how.
As a product manager, your responsibility is to make sure your product meets its strategic objectives. So you should always communicate to your developers not just what you want the product to do, but why. Why will the desired functionality benefit customers and how does that roll up into business objectives?
But figuring how to build this functionality into the product is development’s responsibility. And they take this responsibility seriously. So do not risk jeopardizing your all-important relationship with your development team by telling them how to do their jobs. (Even if that’s not how you mean it to come across, it might be how they perceive it.)
2. Be available, but don’t hover.
Once you’ve communicated to your development team what you want and why, they will probably want to dig in and begin tackling that project.
As a product manager, you need to strike a delicate balance here between making yourself available and being a helicopter product manager. Don’t check in with them too frequently or it may be perceived as micromanagement on your part. Instead, make yourself available and approachable. And schedule regular check-in times with them to arrange more opportunities for questions. Don’t make your development team think you don’t trust them.
Executives, investors, and board members are usually strategically focused. In most cases they will be interested primarily in how your product strategy is contributing (or going to contribute) to the company’s larger objectives. These can include increased market share, competitive advantage, revenue, increased brand recognition and brand value, etc.
Which means that when it comes to this particular stakeholder type, you’ll want to keep your communications strategic and focused on the big picture.
Strategies for Managing Executive Stakeholders
1. Keep the details to a minimum—unless they ask you specifically.
Once again, your responsibility is to make sure your product meets its strategic objectives. So you should communicate to your developers what you want the product to do, and why that will benefit customers as well as your company’s business goals. No need to go into the nitty gritty. Talk high level in themes and outcomes rather than in features and functionalities.
2. Show a positive attitude—honest, but positive.
Executives tend to be positive, optimistic people. (Not always, of course, but as a general rule.) They’re responsible for a lot, after all—the overall success of their business, many people’s jobs (including yours), investors’ money, etc. They need to believe their company can really become successful.
With this in mind, whenever possible you want to help contribute to that optimism. When you’re speaking with your executive team or presenting your roadmap, for example, don’t just give them a flat, lifeless update about your product’s progress. Tell them a story—about how it’s going to change things for your customers. Or, about how enthusiastic you are to see the market’s response when the product goes live. Give those execs reason to be enthusiastic, too.
Sales Team Stakeholders
Your sales teams are going to be interested in how the work you’re doing on your products will give them a competitive edge in the marketplace. They want help selling to prospective customers or tapping into new markets. This might sound obvious, but you need to understand that there is a distinction between the specific interests of your sales department and your company’s broader revenue and sales goals.
Let’s say you were to offer a free version of your product, to seed the market and introduce your unique functionality to your targeted personas. The long term plan being that within a year or so you’d roll out a paid enterprise version. That strategy might work well for your company’s longer-term objectives—but what would your sales reps sell during that first year? How would they make money?
Understand, your sales team is always going to zero in on the impact that your product will have on sales numbers. And when you communicate with them, when you hear their feature requests, or when they give you resistance on your product strategy, always keep in mind that their motivation might not align perfectly with the larger strategic interests of the company.
Stakeholder Management Strategies for Sales
1. Be ready with evidence to support the plans you share with sales.
When you’re communicating with sales about your product’s progress, or your near- or mid-term plans for adding new features, you should always be mindful of the one thing on that team’s minds: Will this help us make sales?
So rather than just walk the team through your next few planned features, you should show them—with evidence, if possible—why prioritizing the next initiatives on your product roadmap will help the team’s sales numbers. Maybe your recent survey results suggest that adding a new feature to your subscription-based SaaS software would persuade a significant percentage of prospects to buy. Or that it would entice a significant percentage of existing customers to renew their subscriptions. That’s what sales wants to hear.
2. When listening to your sales reps’ requests, keep your “Sales! Sales! Sales!” filter on.
Your sales team is a great source of valuable business intelligence. They’re out in the marketplace day after day, talking with customers and prospects, learning what motivates users and what objections or concerns they might have about your products.
But you also need to keep in mind what is motivating those sales reps. When a rep tells you the product needs XYZ feature, ASAP, what does that mean? Does the product really need that feature? In other words, will it bring in new customers, or let you tap into a whole new industry? Or does the rep just want it because a large prospect said they might be interested if the product had XYZ feature?
Always keep that filter on. Maintain a positive relationship with your sales team, but don’t fall into the common product management pitfall of jumping every time a sales rep asks you to.
Your marketing team is responsible for evangelizing your products to customers and the broader market. It is their job to put your products in the most favorable light possible, which means they’ll be looking to you and your team to tell them what’s so special about your product.
Strategies for Managing Marketing Stakeholders
1. Start collaborating with marketing as early as possible in the development process.
One common mistake product teams make is waiting until the product is almost all the way through the development process before bringing the marketing department into the fold. At that point, the marketing team has very little time to develop the emotionally powerful messaging and story they’ll need for a successful marketing campaign.
So you should invite marketing into the development process as early as you can. Let them hear your strategy conversations. Help them get to know your target user personas and gain an understanding of where your product will fit into the market and what problems it will solve.
2. Don’t micromanage the details—tell them your product’s story and then give them some space to work.
Your marketing team can have a complete list of your product’s features, its system requirements, and its performance capabilities—and still have no idea how to persuade even your ideal user persona to buy it.
To do its job as effectively as possible, marketing will need you to tell the product’s story. They need an emotionally compelling story describing how the product will help your customers achieve something great or avoid something terrible.
So, just as you need to stay out of your developers’ way and let them determine the how of building your product, you should also give your marketing team the tools they need—your product’s emotionally resonant story—and then step back and let them work their magic.
Find more smart strategies for working with marketing in our post: How to Build an Amazing Relationship Between Product Management and Marketing.
If Only There Were Just One Stakeholder Type…
If your product had only one stakeholder, this aspect of product management would be a lot easier. You’d only need one version of your roadmap; you’d only need one way of explaining your product’s strategic goals and plans; and you could always answer anyone’s question your current prioritizes in exactly the same way.
Unfortunately, there are lots of stakeholder types, and each requires a slightly different approach when it comes to your communication strategy as a product manager. We hope this post has given you some useful strategies.