The role of a product manager is fairly new in the tech space, but has quickly become one of the most crucial roles within a company. From huge, enterprise companies down to an early age startup, software companies everywhere are starting to develop more product manager roles and expand their product management teams, but every company you ask is going to give you a different definition of product management. So, what exactly does a product manager do, and what makes it such an important emerging role for companies, both big and small? 

What Does a Product Manager Do? 

Product managers are the people who are directly responsible for making sure that their products are successful. Now, this definition is left purposefully vague because to be completely honest, being a “product manager” can mean completely different things for different companies.

From helping a sales team understand what they’re actually selling to balancing their customers’ needs with the vision they have for the product to creating and communicating the product roadmap, a product manager’s role can vary widely, particularly depending on the size and stage of the company. In large, well-established companies, a product manager will often only be focused on one small aspect of the product, whereas in a smaller company, a product manager will be needed for every aspect of a product. While a product manager’s role fluctuates depending on these factors, their primary responsibility remains the same: setting the vision and strategy for the product. 

A product manager (PM) is one of the most important roles of a SaaS company’s  make-up as they start to grow. The wide range of PM responsibilities means that they are needed throughout many areas of the business,  which means one of the hallmarks of a good PM is being flexible. They are the go-between for many different facets of the business as well as the decision makers for the product.

Product Manager Responsibilities

A PM can have a wide range of responsibilities, and what they focus on is going to change based on what product they’re building, what size company they’re at, and how cross-functional their role is. Typically, however, we can break down a PM’s role into six core functions:

1. Discover – Identify which products they will make

2. Prioritize – Determine the order in which these products or features will be made in

3. Build & Release – Wireframe and pass off to engineering

4. Improve – Use feedback to iterate on the Product

5. Align team around users’ needs – Make sure everyone is on the same page for the new feature

6. Close the loop with users – Announce when it’s live!

Let’s take a look at these individual responsibilities a bit closer.

6 Core Roles of a Successful Product Manager

1. Discover – Identify Which Products To Make

The best product managers focus on identifying the most important and impactful things to build in their product. This is much easier said than done because the most impactful feature is not always the most requested or suggested. For example, the sales team may come running over (or sending frantic Slack messages) about a new feature that will help them close a deal, or the customer team may tell them that they will lose a customer if something isn’t built. While all of these requests may be legitimate, a product manager is typically tasked with recognizing which of these needs will actually be the most impactful for the entire business, not just one department.

Product teams often have a limited amount of time and resources to work with, so they often can’t build every single request or feature at once. It’s usually the product manager’s responsibility (in conjunction with other team members) to evaluate a number of factors in order to decide what will be the most impactful to prioritize first. If their company’s goal is to retain all existing customers, then they know that customer needs should take priority to align with the company’s vision. The impact of each of these decisions is wide reaching, and that reach is why the best PM’s work cross-functionally with many different teams to identify where the biggest impact will be.

Let’s walk through an example here. Say you are a product manager at a photo sharing company called PhotoDump. An Account Manager at PhotoDump tells you that a premium-paying customer mentioned on a sales call that they wanted a way to share all their photos to their Facebook feed. Then, you heard in your weekly meeting with the Customer Success team that three customers want a way to share photos on their mobile phones. You also learn that the Support team has encountered a login bug that displays an error message during a successful login. So now, you have identified three different product insights (the Facebook sharing feature, developing mobile functionality, and a login bug) that could positively impact the business.

The problem is, you take a look at your product roadmap and realize you only have the time and resources to focus on one of these insights at the moment. How do you decide which one to prioritize first?

2. Prioritize – Determine Which Features To Build First

It can be challenging to decide what to prioritize first, particularly when lots of feedback and enhancement requests are anecdotal, so the vast majority of PMs will need to make a business cases for each potential new item in order to properly evaluate what will be most impactful. Building a business case from one-off requests can cost the company a whole lot of time, energy, and money. It is crucial that product managers take the time to build in-depth business cases that are backed by valuable and validated feedback to help them decide which features will have the most impact on the organization. 

The process for how a product manager determines the most impactful feature to build will vary across companies and industries, but typically these three questions are a good place to start:

  1. What will be most effective in reducing our churn rate?
  2. What is the most compelling for prospective customers?
  3. What aligns the most with our company’s current goals and roadmap?

Returning to our above example, which feature should you, our product manager at PhotoDump, focus on first? You could focus on your largest existing customer who was hoping to add a Facebook sharing functionality, a number of your customers who each are looking for the same fix, or you could take care of an aesthetic bug. Let’s say that you decide to focus on the feature that your addresses your largest customer needs, the Facebook sharing feature, because your company has a goal to reduce the churn rate and keep the existing customer base satisfied.

It’s important to note here that this does not mean that you simply throw away the feedback that you learned about from your other customers. That feedback is still incredibly important, and will help you make prioritization decisions in the future. It simply means that this is the feature that you are focusing on for right now, but those other features will be built down the road. 

3. Build and Release – Ensure Products Are Made and Shipped

While PMs are not responsible for the actual coding of the feature in most cases, they do play a role in communicating and working collaboratively with the teams involved in the actual creation of the feature; mainly, engineering and design teams. They often work with these folks to ensure that the new feature looks good and fits into the flow of their overall product prior to passing the project over to be built.

One of the most common questions that we get about product management is whether or not you need hard coding skills, and the honest answer is, it depends. Some larger companies may want product managers to have more technical responsibilities, but this is purely based on the company’s structure and preferences and is not a requirement for the majority of companies.

PMs also have to communicate frequently and clearly with the sales team to ensure that they are up to date on the product that they are selling, and with the marketing team to ensure that they have all the tools and materials needed to ensure that the launch goes smoothly. This cross-collaboration means that PMs will need to show the function of the new feature, what it will help with, and how they can educate customers on how to best use it. This will help the go to market teams communicate the new value addition to their product to new and existing prospects.

Here is where our example PM with PhotoDump would begin to layout the framework and minimum requirements for this new feature, the Facebook sharing feature. The extent of this responsibility will depend on the company, but it typically includes laying out the format of the feature, describing the minimal viable requirements of the feature, and the plan for creation, iteration, and launch. You will likely work hand-in-hand with the engineering team to make sure that you both are on the same page about what you are looking for in this new feature and what the estimated timeline is. Sharing your prototypes or wireframes with your GTM teams can give them a better idea of what they will be selling down the line, which can help them plan for what they can emphasize during deals or calls.

4. Improve – Use Feedback to Iterate on the Product

The best PMs are closely aligned with their customer teams and in regular contact with their users. There is only so much that someone can do to theorize on how the product will be best used and all the different possible use cases for their product. So, they turn to the people actually interacting with the product: their users. Having a strong relationship with users of a product is the fastest way to continue to grow the product in ways that will have the largest business impact on the company. Plus, customers who feel heard will be more likely to continue to renew their contracts and more likely to provide more actionable feedback and become collaborators in your product.

One way to approach gathering customer insights is through in-product features, such as a widget that allows customers to immediately give feedback about the product without having to leave. Another way that this can be achieved is through regular contact with your users about the different ways that they are using the product and any ideas that they may have come up with during their workflows, such as sending out surveys asking customers what would be most helpful to them, or sending previews of the feature you’re currently working on to get actionable feedback before finalizing designs. If you’re looking for more ways to collect customer feedback, check out our blog post here.

Continuing our example here, our PM at PhotoDump will continue the cycle of building off of customer feedback. You could offer your premium-paying customers a preview of the Facebook sharing feature to see what they think of the functionality, or send a survey directly to the users who requested the feature to ask if the feature works in the way they expected to. Then, you can take a look at your responses and decide if the feature needs continued iteration before release.

Did you get a lot of positive responses and excitement? You’re good to go! But maybe a premium-paying customer replies to your preview saying that they would only use this feature if they could add the photos to specific albums on Facebook, or maybe a user suggests that the feature would make more sense if it lived in a different area of your product. Then, it’s up to you, our PM, to make those iterations if you choose to do so, and communicate this feedback with the rest of your team, which leads us to our next step.

Parlor Preview

5. Align Teams – Ensure Teams Are All Working Towards The Same Goal

Aligning teams who often prioritize different aspects of the company around one goal is one of the most important and often overlooked aspects of being a PM. Customer-facing teams will be held to standards based on customer health scores or on churn percentage, while more technical teams will be judged on lines of code written or bug rates. These competing metrics mean that each of these teams are focused on different goals and can come into conflict over what should be the first item prioritized. The best PMs are able to balance each of these different motivations and make the best decision for the product and the business as a whole. Without careful consideration, the process of prioritization could create internal strife, particularly if other teams feel like their needs are not being addressed. 

One way to counter this issue is through transparency on the product roadmap. If the rest of the organization is looped into the decision-making process and has the ability to see where items are on the roadmap, this visibility will limit the frustrations felt by the different teams. Typically in larger organizations, a product team will have a weekly or monthly standing meeting with other teams, if anything. This is often not consistent enough and can cause a breakdown in communication because other internal teams feel they don’t understand what the product team is working on and why. That is why it is so important for a product manager to have good communications skills. 

At this step of the process, our PM with PhotoDump will continue to work closely with different teams to start to prep for the actual launch of the product. First, you may work with the sales team to ensure that they have all the sales enablement assets they need to appropriately pitch the feature. You may  also work with the marketing team to make sure that they have everything they need to promote the feature and talk about it.

In our example, you decided to prioritize the Facebook sharing feature, which was requested most commonly by premium-paying customer. So at this point, you would want to update those customers who requested this feature and let them know when they can expect their items to be released if they’re not aware already. This will allow them to give a clear idea to their customers what they should be expecting and when. 

6. Close the Loop – Inform Customers When Feedback is Actioned

If a customer’s idea or request becomes live, the only way that building that thing provides value is if that customer knows about it and knows how to use it!  PMs, along with customer-facing teams, are often responsible for keeping customers informed and in the loop on where their feedback or request is within the roadmap. A customer who feels like their needs are being listened to will be happier and more likely to continue to provide insights that help the product continue to mature. If that customer sees that their requests are becoming part of the product, then they will become significantly less likely to churn. Keeping the users in the loop also allows them to become excited about the new feature and this way, they will remain engaged during the time that their feature requests are being fulfilled. 

This is the last step in the process of being a PM with PhotoDump. Here, you would launch the product and update your customers on the exciting new feature, particularly the ones who requested it. This could be an in-product announcement that lets customers know what the new feature is and where to find it, or reaching out to them personally through email to update them on what the new feature is. You should also provide support documentation to show them how to use the feature and where it would be in your product. This could be in the form of a GIF of how to toggle automatic sync to their Facebook feed, or provide a link to an FAQ about how this Facebook function works. You could even use tutorial videos to accomplish this, and show them some of the best practices that can be associated with this feature. The goal here is to let the customer know that the feature is live, where they can find it, and how they can best utilize it.

Phew! Our PM made it to the end. But what’s that? A comment on the announcement about the Facebook sync from an important user asking for an Instagram sync option as well? Time to start the whole process over again with another feature!

Be A Great Product Manager

A great product manager will handle all of these responsibilities and more, as well as communicate product priorities clearly throughout the organization. The specific duties will change depending on what company a PM works at, but these six core responsibilities will be a part of their duties in some way at most SaaS companies. 

Becoming a great PM is not easy, but it can be an extremely rewarding career as your skills and hard will often translate into an  immediate and visible impact for your company and product. A good PM is indispensable to a growing SaaS company, and the best are able to make a major impact on the organization the minute they step through the door. Lots of these skills are communication-based and build off trust with your other teammates, so building a relationship with the other people involved in the product journey will be critical to growth in the PM position. In short, a great PM is the lynchpin of a SaaS business who works to ensure that everything to do with the product runs smoothly and efficiently.