The Importance of
an Excellent SaaS Product Manager
In our role of developing SaaS applications, both internally and for external organizations, we witness what works and what doesn’t. Atop the list of factors to ensure success of any SaaS product is having the right team guiding and delivering it. In the next few articles, we’re going to dig deeper into the roles & responsibilities of critical SaaS team members. From original vision to bug fixes, the right cornerstone staff will help keep the ship seaworthy. And the captain of the ship, in most cases, is an excellent SaaS product manager.
Role of a Product Manager
Depending on your organization, your product manager may wear different titles. We’ve worked with small companies where the CEO was also a product manager. We’ve worked at large organizations where product management was a team of people (although there was still a hierarchy in the team). Some companies have product owners, product managers, and project managers. So for purposes of discussion, we’ll explain ourselves as though it’s a single person — the role of a SaaS product manager remains the same despite variations in organizational structure.
The best SaaS product managers build a vision for what the product is and will become. The challenge is understanding and adapting to organizational constraints. We’ve been involved with projects over the years that were too ambitious, trying to make a dent in the universe but without enough resources. Useful vision is both futuristic and pragmatic, ambitious but based in reality. The vision needs to be articulated as well, in a way that that stakeholders, developers, and customers can understand it. Imagine Steve Jobs explaining his idea for a touchscreen phone to a world that had both touchscreens and mobile phones, just not one device. Jobs’ device meets our criteria of being futuristic and pragmatic, given that his organization was well established in an adjacent market.
A vision without a plan is just a dream, right? An effective SaaS product manager also knows how to get things done. She won’t do the work, but she motivates others and good things happen. Execution includes a number of diverse responsibilities and requires relevant skills. We’ll drill down on both those areas. Organizational process also necessitates that the product manager can execute. If the CEO or CTO ignores or blocks the product manager, failure is almost guaranteed. On the contrary — this person needs elevation to succeed.
Responsibilities of a Product Manager
To handle the diverse responsibilities, a SaaS product manager has to be proficient in three areas: technology, business, and user experience.
Understanding the target audience for a SaaS solution is essential. If you’re building a CRM, for example, you should know what your users need — the things that would set you apart. Especially in super-competitive markets (like CRM!), you need specialization or differentiation from competition. To know your position, you need market research and analysis. What is your ideal customer profile? How big is the market? Who are your competitors? What makes your SaaS product unique? How can you articulate your uniqueness? Where is the market going in the future?
Once you have a basic offering, a good product manager looks for growth opportunities. Using market research — customer surveys, competitive analysis, interviews — you want to collect ideas for your backlog. You may want an enhancement that makes your product faster or easier. You may need a better way to onboard new users. The goal is to think of numerous potential ways to improve your product.
Using customer feedback, input from stakeholders, data from developers, and even some gut instinct, the product manager should create a high-level roadmap. The roadmap reflects a high-level view of where the system needs to go. The product roadmap is never complete and is rarely accurate, but it helps direct the vision for the organization.
Using a solid backlog of ideas and a roadmap, a good product manager will work on prioritizing development tasks. First, we build Feature A. That enables us to expand Module 1. Then we can build Feature B and… Being aware of the internal development processes is paramount in prioritization.
If you see job postings for product managers, they almost always mention having the ability to work in cross-functional teams. Indeed! Knowing how to communicate with a wide range of personalities and roles is essential. Product managers have to speak a little “geek” with developers. They have to explain geeky stuff to marketing people. They occasionally have to please the C suite with updates.
In addition to communicating internally, procut managers often have to talk with and write to prospects, customers, and perhaps media too. Writing needs to be crisp, concise, spelled correctly(!), and accurate. Nothing undermines credibility faster than a poorly written note to a key customer or a media outlet. It reverberates.
Skills of a Product Manager
A healthy dose of walking a mile in someone’s shoes is valuable. If you’re building a SaaS solution for nurses, someone with experience with medical software brings an advantage. Or if you’re building a CRM for the medical industry, someone with CRM experience in a different vertical market can help. The advantage is being able to talk the talk and walk the walk. It helps in many responsibilities, such as market research, ideation, and communication.
Two ears, one mouth… A good product manager listens to customers, stakeholders, and developers. Ingesting information like a sponge not only helps guide the process, those sharing their insights participate in the process and feel heard. Contrast that with someone telling the stakeholder all the answers…
Research & Analysis
It’s hard to overstate the value of a product manager who can glean insights from data. Collecting the right data and then distilling meaning from it can drive huge success. For example, users aren’t renewing their subscriptions. How do we find out why? Where do users get stuck? What can we test quickly to fix the problem?
Being able to anticipate opportunities, guard against challenges, generate new ideas, and establish clear goals is important. Strategic thinking entails both decisiveness and flexibility.
With two of the responsibilities listed above being communication…well…being able to communicate well matters. Listening, speaking, and writing all count. Clarity should be valued.
A product manager needs to interact with a diverse group of people. To maximize efficacy, that means motivating those around her. It’s knowing how to wield carrots & sticks, to push or back off at the right time, and to seek or provide help. Unless it’s a solo effort, keeping the team humming along is essential. Building consensus wins.
As team size grows, delegation becomes essential. The product manager should “outsource” tasks to other team members when it makes sense. Adding redundancy is one advantage — more than one person knows how to manage product tasks — as is agility, where more things can get done faster.
The Importance of an Excellent SaaS Product Manager
SaaS product management drives the development, launch, marketing, and improvement of your organization’s SaaS product. Tasks include a combination of tactical, technical, professional, and strategic responsibilities. SaaS roadmaps change often, requiring frequent communication with stakeholders. An excellent product manager looks at problems carefully from many angles to choose the right path forward. Empathy is critical in that process, as is strong data analysis. Ultimately, an excellent product manager keeps existing customers satisfied. Every release continues to deliver a solid customer experience and provides value for your customers. User experience is becoming more important than ever, and the product manager essentially has a huge impact on that.