Product managers need to interact with multiple departments and work with cross-functional teams. We are required to understand a multitude of skills, tools, and techniques to successfully perform day-to-day job requirements. Our skill-set balances marketing, engineering, information technology (IT), and manufacturing. We move from understanding nuances of customer insights to ensuring products are equipped with features that deliver high-valued benefits. Then, our winning features and benefits need to be clearly communicated to customers.
Working between such diverse groups requires a key skill – business interpreter. Business interpreters help to bridge the gap between diverse groups within an organization. So, what is a business interpreter? A typical language interpreter converts concepts from a source language to a target language. For example, Lucy is helping a Spanish-speaking customer explain problems she is having with a new product. Lucy interprets what the customer is saying into English for the non-Spanish speaking to Steve, the customer service representative.
A business interpreter is an individual that is able to seamlessly work between multiple departments through a strong understanding of all aspects of the business; theoretical, practical, and most importantly simplistically. The product manager communicates from one department to another through the diverse “languages” each group “speaks”. This is a critical skill for product managers as we work between and with technical and non-technical groups.
Let’s look at a typical scenario a product manager might encounter. Consumers are rating the headlights on our new minivan very important but below expectations during usage (high importance, low satisfaction). Dealership owners are complaining sales are slowing due to internet chatter that families do not feel safe while driving. We need to understand what is happening in the marketplace and communicate the situation back to executives with recommendations.
We visit dealerships and customers of our product and competitors. We drive our minivan and competitor products in a variety of situations. After weeks studying the situation, we compile all our data and start building our story for executives. Our first meeting with executives goes well, but they request more data to ensure this is a real problem.
One of our first stops is with the information technology (IT) department. We need help gathering various sales and warranty data, as well as segment sales information to help executives understand the situation better. We work with several data analysts by providing crucial direction for data aggregation (from multiple sources) to provide impactful insights and direction for executives. The goal is to help executives make an effective business decision. We need to communicate what executives ant to review to ensure analysts gather the correct data.
The analysts joke that it is nice working with someone that understands data and knows exactly what they want. Typically executives make requests that are not logical and the analysts waste lots of time going back and forth with executives until the executive finally gets what he wants, which is often completely different from the initial request. Our understanding of data helps the analysts quickly gather the correct information and compile it in a way that executives will understand. The new data clarifies the story, and executives approve the recommendation for a new headlight design.
The product manager now needs to communicate the field findings to engineering teams to develop an updated headlight design. Quantifying qualitative findings allows engineers a deeper understanding of the customer needs. If headlights need to be brighter, the product manager cannot just say “make us brighter headlights”. This does not provide much direction for engineering teams (and often causes a lot of frustration). A more impactful discussion would focus on the technical aspects that would meet customer needs while providing product differentiation. For example, lumens, watts, headlight shape, bulb life, etc. are more concrete and provide a better foundation for engineers to begin development.
An effective tool to communicate market needs into technical details would be a House of Quality (HOQ). The HOQ translates qualitative customer needs into quantitative directions to ensure engineers understand what is needed and provide direction on how to achieve it. The HOQ provides measureable directions for product development. It provides a direct, visual relationship between how engineering characteristics affect the customer needs.
Similarly to the data analysts, the engineers joke they are glad they did not have to deal with the VP of sales. He always asks for what competitors already have, but for a lower price. He doesn’t understand the product development process or what customers actually want; he never supports his requests with data. They appreciate working with someone who has a grasp of engineering and uses evidence-based decision making for requests.
In addition, the product manager needs to understand how manufacturing teams are developing and assembling the new headlights. This “factory story” can then be communicated to marketing teams for additional feature and benefit “golden nuggets”. She is able to explain to manufacturing engineers what unique production techniques or processes are helpful to marketing and customers. As the product manager leverages her technical knowledge of the lights and is familiar with the production process, she is able to uncover additional insights to provide ongoing stories for press introductions, dealership training, customer ride-and-drives, and develop advertising and promotions to targeted customers.
After the new headlights are added to the updated minivan, the product manager needs to prepare sales and marketing teams for product launch. The product manager needs to explain how the headlights exceed customer expectations and provide a clear competitive advantage over competitor minivans. The product manager needs to explain what the engineers did and how to properly communicate to dealers and customers.
For example, along with technical specifications and explanations, the product manager needs to communicate how the lights will be appreciated by customers
- Able to see farther down dark, country roads avoiding growing populations of deer.
- Help keep the children in the backseat safe – piece-of-mind for parents.
- Brighter lights ensure oncoming cars see them but do not blind the oncoming drivers, avoiding possible accidents.
- And most importantly, demonstrate how these new headlights exceed competitive products and result in a safer, more confident and comfortable driving experience.
- The headlights are developed with a new plastic designed by NASA that incorporates a special manufacturing process for longer life
The product manager needs a multitude of skills; strategy, marketing communications, sales, finance, engineering, quality control, data analysis, design, statistics, etc., to perform her job properly. Product managers need to be the center of the product environment – seamlessly moving back-and-forth between technical and non-technical teams. Ensuring clear and simple communication between cross-functional teams is vital for effective and efficient operations.
Taking on the role of a business interpreter allows product managers to ensure all teams have clear understandings and move in the same direction. As the role of a business interpreter becomes increasingly clear, product managers become a vital element for successful development and launch of products. Elite product managers are highly skilled in strategic marketing and data analysis, along with strong technical understanding of the product. Grasping a holistic understanding of key business operations enables a successful career and long-term growth for the organization.