Which Product Managers Are Thriving In A Covid-19 World?

Product Managers Who Use Robots Are Doing Well
Product Managers Who Use Robots Are Doing Well
Image Credit: Timothy Neesam

Who among us could have predicted a Covid-19 pandemic would change our world in the ways that it has? I’d be willing to guess that the answer to that question is none of us. However, as much of setback as these turns of events have been, there are some product managers who are doing well even now. It turns out that these product managers had been preparing their product development definition for a different sort of future and the Covid-19 pandemic almost played into their hands.

How To Be A Successful Pandemic Product Manager

A good example of what I’m talking about is happening over at Domino’s Pizza. Their product managers began testing a new service aimed at time-pressed customers: a way to pick up a pizza without entering the store. Upon arrival, you check in via the Domino’s app on your phone or text message, and an employee deposits the pie in the trunk of your car. You never make contact. No, they weren’t anticipating a pandemic; however, this plays rather nicely into the way that we are operating today, doesn’t it? When the pandemic hit suddenly customers either couldn’t or wouldn’t enter stores. Domino’s quickly rolled out “Carside” pickup to its stores. It is one reason why the pizza delivery giant’s product managers thrived during the pandemic. Its sales and stock price surged while other restaurants struggled. A success like this could look good on anyone’s product manager resume.

The product managers best positioned for the Covid era had technology that allowed them to adapt quickly to changing times: touchless transactions, robotics, online commerce or the infrastructure needed to support a decentralized workforce. They are emerging as winners in an economy where customers and workers must avoid contact, offices are empty and travel is limited. Even as the economy slowly returns to normal, the models created by these product managers may continue to define and reshape the business world for a long time to come. That is because many changes brought on by Covid-19 are starting to look permanent as customers, workers and companies actually prefer the new ways of doing things. The shift to internet commerce, already underway before the pandemic, will stay. Companies who sent workers home may keep the arrangement because it can raise productivity and cut costs. Once-niche services like telehealth and online education that came into their own during lockdowns will be more important in the future.

Yet not every company will successfully negotiate these transitions—and not every company will have to. There are limits to how far digitization and decentralization can go. After an initial rush of enthusiasm for work-from-home, many firms have found it makes collaboration, recruitment and integration of new employees harder. And people are social animals who crave the in-person experience, whether that means going to the theater, a restaurant or a doctor. Even the Domino’s product managers acknowledge that there is still something special about interacting with customers in the old-fashioned way. There’s something to the actual experience of a pizza handoff that is a personal connection. It is expected that such interactions will probably come back.

How Product Managers Can Manage A Pandemic

During the pandemic, Domino’s has not had the problems that other restaurants have had. Its U.S. sales have leapt 16%. In part it was lucky: it has little dine-in business. But it has also perfected order-in and delivery through intensive innovation. While many restaurants depend on multiple systems from outside suppliers for technology such as online ordering, Domino’s developed its own, single proprietary point of sale system for all of its stores (there are now more than 6,000 in the U.S., 94% franchise owned). All that work of the past decade has got them to a pretty good place for using technology to pivot to a new function on the fly.

Health care, unlike retail, was relatively resistant to digital delivery before the pandemic. Patients still generally saw the doctor in person. One important reason was financial. Fee-for-service” insurance plans made it harder to bill for telehealth than in in-person visits, discouraging providers from offering them. Many providers had to scramble to offer telemedicine options when the pandemic made in-person visits difficult and the federal government relaxed restrictions on billing for telehealth. The product managers at Kaiser Permanente had a head start. Why? Because they never faced the same disincentives to invest in telehealth. The company is both insurer and provider: Members pay a flat monthly premium that covers all care delivered by Kaiser’s own doctors, pharmacists, therapists, nurses, specialists and hospitals, in person or via telehealth. Their business model is made for this technology.

Robotics and artificial intelligence were already performing a growing range of tasks more cheaply and reliably than humans. With the pandemic, they demonstrated another advantage: They don’t spread the virus. One set of product managers who learned this lesson work at Stanley Black & Decker Inc., which invested heavily in systems of autonomous robots in the months before the pandemic. Also known as cobots—because they operate alongside shop-floor workers—each system includes a robot equipped with 3-D sensors and designed to stack boxes of finished power tools coming off the assembly line. A mobile robot then delivers the pallets to nearby distribution centers, replacing forklift operators.

By chance, multiple systems were slated to roll out in mid-March at the company’s 345,000-square-foot plant in Fort Mill, S.C. The plant makes drills, saws and wrenches for the North American market, under the Craftsman, DeWalt and Mac Tools brands. Though most of the company’s 48 U.S. plants use some automation, less than a dozen have cobots—and none at the scale of the South Carolina plant. The original goal was to cut costs and boost output to better compete with a rising number of tool manufacturers in Mexico. But the pandemic highlighted another benefit. Many manufacturers had to shut down factories and reorganize to space out workers. For Stanley, the robotic systems, made by Rockwell Automation Corp. for a total of $1.5 million, kept the South Carolina plant from shutting down at the height of the outbreak.


What All Of This Means For You

No product manager could have foreseen the impact that the Covid-19 pandemic would have on businesses and customers. All of the best laid plans had to be scrapped and new plans created. However, even as everyone’s world got turned upside down, there were some product managers who were still able use their product manager job description to thrive and survive. What did they do that allowed them to make it through a pandemic?

At Dominos the product managers were already trialing a new system that allowed customers to pick up a pizza without entering the store. Product managers who have been implementing touchless transactions will see their innovations live on beyond the current pandemic. Product managers need to realize that for some products, customers may still crave human contact. Dominos has been successful in part because the technology that they have deployed has all been developed in-house. The product managers at Kaiser Permanente have had a head start because their company both provides insurance and health care services. The product managers at Stanley Black & Decker were already planning on rolling out robotic assembly lines. The arrival of the pandemic allowed them to use their plans in order to keep their facilities open and producing parts.

The Covid-19 pandemic was a big disruption for most product managers. However, for a small group of product managers who were already in the process of creating touchless transactions for dealing with their customers, the pandemic has not been as big of a disruption. The rest of us can learn from these product managers and start to implement some of their changes into the way that we interact with our customers. By doing this, we’ll be ready for the next pandemic!


– Dr. Jim Anderson Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World Product Management Skills™


Question For You: When the pandemic is over, should product managers still implement touchless services?


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What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

Everyone has to go out and buy groceries, right? Well, it turns out that at one time that would have been a correct statement; however, these days things have changed and now customers have many choices on how they can get the groceries that they need. This change has hit grocery store product managers very hard. All of a sudden they find themselves having to change their product development definition, overhaul their operations, and having to invest in new technologies and talent in order to find ways to keep their customers from shopping at Amazon for their groceries. Oh, and they also have keep food prices low because that is what their customers expect. How are grocery story product managers going to accomplish all of this?

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