Product Managers Know That If At First You Don’t Succeed…

Product manager know to just keep on trying
Product manager know to just keep on trying
Image Credit: Celestine Chua

Ok, so this article is fairly personal. I’ve been trying to get the attention of a very large customer for the better part of a year now and I’ve been met with failure at just about every turn. I’ve tried very, very hard and at times it has seemed like success was just within my grasp only to have it snatched away over and over again. If I wasn’t a product manager I might have given up by now. However, I AM a product manager and so this means that I know that I have to just keep trying over and over again. I just might have found my way to turn this failure into a success and that has me very happy. Would you like to hear my story?

The Customer Who Could Not Say “Yes”

So my story starts about a year ago. I was meeting with a very large customer with my boss. My boss had gone into the meeting with the hopes of getting the customer to agree to piloting our product at ten of their locations. During the meeting it became clear to me that the customer could really benefit from using our product at all of their locations and so I suggested it. Much to my boss’s amazement, the customer went for it. They said that with a deal that would be this large they would need to issue a formal RFP. However, we were left with the impression that we would easily be selected once the RFP came out.

Sounds like a good situation for a product manager to be in, right? Well in the meantime the customer decided to challenge us. We had already done one pilot for them and clearly they liked our product development definition. Now they asked us to do another pilot. The first pilot had been done at a site that had a lot going for it – no big problems. The new pilot site was struggling. The workers had positive attitudes, but the deck was stacked against them. We believed that our product could help them, but it would be a challenge. We agreed to the second pilot and got to work. The pilot was actually a medium success. As always, it can be a challenge to get a customer to change how they are doing things, but the product clearly had a positive impact on the new customer site. Once again, everything seemed to be going our way and I just knew that I was going to have something to add to my product manager resume.

Then the customer released their RFP. We were excited – this is what we had been waiting for! We got to work on crafting an answer to the RFP. Our graphics artists were involved and in my humble opinion, our response was the best looking RFP response I have ever seen. We turned in and waited to be selected the winner. Well, that didn’t happen. Instead, we were informed that we were one of four finalists and we were invited to make a presentation to a committee the customer had put together. We practiced our presentation, delivered it, and then sat back waiting to be selected. We weren’t selected. In fact, we ended up coming in third. What had happened here?

Never, Ever, Give Up

Needless to say, I was both surprised and dismayed to lose this opportunity. Many other people would have thrown their hands up in the air and said “oh well”. Not me. I want back to the customer’s purchasing department to find out more about who had won. Not all that surprisingly I discovered that the vendor who was currently providing the customer with my product had won. I also discovered that their price was better than mine – by only $7,000. I got a copy of their proposal (public records rules are great!) and studied it. I found a number of discrepancies and I pointed all of this out to the purchasing department to no avail. The contract was awarded to the incumbent vendor.

Clearly things were not going my way. I had played the game by the rules that the customer had established and yet I had still come away a loser. As we all know, life simply is not fair! I was not willing to give up on this opportunity yet. I mean, that other vendor had not installed their product yet. I did some more digging and I discovered that the contact that had been awarded to the other vendor called for them to initially do a pilot of 10 customer sites and then, if those sites met the customer’s approval, to then move forward and do the remaining 240 customer sites. I viewed this as still providing me with an opportunity!

As in all large organizations, the part of the organization that had released the RFP and had selected the other vendor was just one part. There was another part of the organization that probably should have been in charge of this functionality and so I had a sit down talk with them. They informed me that they had no love for the company that had won the contract. They then let me know that I still wanted to play with the organization, there might be another way in. There was a separate community group that worked with not all, but most of the organization’s locations. If I wanted to, I could roll my product out to these groups, get them using it and benefiting from it, and this would show the organization just how great my product was. Bingo – this is exactly why I never gave up on this customer!

What All Of This Means For You

I’d like to be able to tell you that if you did all the right things as a product manager, you’ll always be successful. However, since so much of our job depends on other people, this is all too often not the case. People don’t always do what we want them to do. We know what they should be doing, why they should be doing, and why it’s a good thing. However, that’s often not enough to get them to do what we want them to do.

In my case I was dealing with a large customer who had a genuine need for my product. I did all of the right things and even had two successful pilots with the customer. When it came time for them to make a buying decision, I thought that their selecting of me was a foregone conclusion. I was wrong. They selected another vendor and this could have been “game over” for me. However, I didn’t give up. Instead, I did a lot of research and eventually found another way to get into this customer. Will I be successful in the end? Who knows. However, I may have lost the battle, but I’m bound and determined to win the war.

As product managers we are always going to be running into setbacks and brick walls. When this happens we have an opportunity to make a decision: what are we going to do next? The simple solution is to give up. However, if you do that then you’ll never be successful. Instead, be a real product manager and promise yourself that you’ll never give up – this should almost be a part of our product manager job description. If you keep at it hard enough for long enough, there’s a good chance that you’ll finally get what you want!

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

Question For You: When a purchasing process is done incorrectly, do you think a product manager should complain or keep quiet?

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What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

So here’s a product manager challenge for you. Let’s say that you are responsible for managing a line of high end fashion products. Part of what makes your product line so desirable is that not everyone can get their hands on your product – this is almost a part of your product development definition. However, at the same time in order to both stay in business and to grow the business you really need to sell as many of your products as you can. What’s a product manager to do?