What’s the story with great products?

The single most important thing I learned in 20 years – and it’s at the heart of my first book, Customers Included – is the importance of you as a product manager getting out from behind your desk and observing real, living, breathing customers. Surprisingly, many product managers still do not actually get out and observe real customers. Some try to skip this important step of discovery. Many hope they can guess or A/B test their way to a great product.

Observing customers allows teams – product managers and general managers and others – to understand the story of their customer. Good product managers get out regularly and combine those learnings with quantitative data to build a simple story about what really matters to their customers.

It is impossible to really understand your customers and their story without getting out from inside your four walls. You have a story you tell about your product, about your company, and about your customer. But that story is different from your customer’s story and often leaves out what really matters to customers.

Once you as a product manager understand the story of your customers you need to use it as a tool to help your colleagues see your customer in a new way. That’s critical otherwise you won’t get the support you need to build a product that customers will love.

I recently interviewed Jana Eggers, CEO of AI startup Nara Logics, about storytelling and product management (see Jana’s impressive bio or her recent keynote at Strata + Hadoop World). Jana is a great product manager and has a deep understanding of the power of story.  “With so many stakeholders — developers, executives, marketers and support teams to name a few — PMs must be gifted and versatile storytellers. They have to motivate and excite stakeholders to work in concert to build great products,” said Jana.

On top of everything else you do as a product manager – great customer discovery, good agile methodology, a real understanding of user experience, a deep understanding of technology, etc – you also have to be a good and nuanced storyteller. Where do you learn this art of storytelling?

Meet Thaler Pekar.

Thaler is a master storyteller who helps product managers learn how tell stories that drive the development of great products.  “The best product managers not only know how to understand and discover the story of their customers, but they also help their colleagues understand the customer through nuanced storytelling – through adapting the story in ways that address the specific individual needs of different managers across the organization,” said Thaler.

Since I published Customers Included, I’ve had the pleasure to get to know Thaler and see her work in action with product leaders and companies. After getting to know her, I reached out to some of the Chief Product Officers on the Product Councils that I run and suggested to them that we run a storytelling and story-mapping workshop for their teams. They loved the idea and thus was born a two-day workshop for product managers to learn storytelling from Thaler and story-mapping from Jeff Patton (more on Jeff and his great book/methodology in my next column). We ran this workshop first in Chicago last fall and received great feedback. We are now running it for a second time in San Francisco in two weeks.

Product managers who tell nuanced customer stories that are 1) based on real customer discovery; and 2) help motivate the design of great products… they are my heroes.  I want more of them in the world. And I look forward to seeing several hundred in San Francisco April 19 – 21 when the Product Councils meet and when we run this important storytelling and story-mapping workshop.

– Phil

Phil Terry, co-author of Customers Included, is the founder and CEO of Collaborative Gain, a private community of customer-focused leaders that ask each other for help in building great products, services, and companies. Phil  started this community with Amazon, Google, Travelocity, and others about 15 years ago.

1. Workshop with Jeff Patton and Thaler Pekar
If you are a product manager, you might want to join product managers from Airbnb, Nike, Dropbox, EA, and others at our Product Habits Workshop in San Francisco April 20-21, 2016. We only have a few tickets left.

2. Product Councils
If you are a Chief Product Officer or VP of Product, then you might want to join one of our Product Councils. Contact us to see if you are qualified and if we have an opening for you.

3. Free copy of Customers Included?
All readers based in the US: If you’d like a free copy of my book, Customers Included, where I describe lessons learned from work with Facebook, Apple, and many others, send me a LinkedIn email or email me at: book at collaborative gain dot com.

About the Author

Phyl Terry

Phyl Terry, Founder and CEO of Collaborative Gain, Inc., launched the company’s flagship leadership program – The Councils – in 2002 with a fellow group of Internet pioneers from Amazon, Google, and others. Thousands of leaders from the Internet world have come together in the last 15 years to learn the art of asking for help and to support each other to build better, more customer-centric products, services, and companies.

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