Getting to no

A popular topic among product management bloggers is, How can I say no to my customers? Christopher Cummings has the most recent musings. The Cranky Product Manager and Jeff Lash have also written about the topics--along with practically every other PM blogger out there.

Obviously, it's important to handle customers deftly when you can't comply with their requests. You'd like to keep the conversation friendly, but sometimes, the situation gets confrontational. Your diplomatic skills will face their toughest challenge.

All politics is local
I might have been unusually blessed with reasonable, understanding customers, but I never found the "foreign policy" part of saying no to be that difficult. The real headache, at least where I've worked, was "domestic politics"--what happens within your own company when you have to say no to a customer.

Anxieties run high within your own company when No is the only answer you can provide (other than some possible workarounds). Salespeople worry about the long-term revenue impacts of customer dissatisfaction. Marketing people wring their hands over losing a customer reference. Executives who have built relationships with the higher-ups in the customer organization get cranky.

The more you have to watch your back, the harder it will be to say no. It's a no-win situation, because the real obstacle isn't you, but the development team's ability or willingness to deliver what the customer wants.

If you've arrived at this unhappy point, you have more problems than the immediate dilemma over how to handle this particular customer. Product management, as I've argued in earlier posts, is an acutely political job. Effective product managers have to learn how to negotiate, cajole, wheedle, inspire, and deflect, none of which is possible if you don't have a strong position in the company.

You can ask for full diplomatic powers when you deal with customers. The company trusts you to act in its interests; you promise to do everything you can to keep the customer happy without making commitments that no one can keep. PMs rarely get this sort of plenipotentiary powers, however. You might want to treat this special envoy status with a boulder-sized grain of salt.

Avoid being a supremo
If someone says to you, "I have an exciting opportunity for you to be a real hero, handling some tough customer enhancement requests," don't answer. First, watch this short video from the brilliant BBC sitcom Yes, Minister, which should be required viewing for any product manager:

The Minister thinks that being "transport supremo" is a real honor, but instead, it's a time bomb. So, too, are situations in which you have to say no to a customer, but you don't have the political mojo in your own company to deal with the aftermath.

[Cross-posted at The Heretech.]

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Comments

re: Getting to no

TomAbsolutely agree with you about the politics of Product Management. And a lot of the problems PMs face are driven by political (i.e. the wielding of power and influence) issue in companies.Weak PMs or those with insufficient credibility will always come out on the short end of important political situations. Sales wields a lot of power naturally. And so does Dev. PM, unless lead by a strong and capable leader, usually gets caught between the two.

re: Getting to no

Tom: I actually look at having to tell a customer "no" as being a fantastic opportunity to deepen our relationship. Any Product Manger can smile and keep saying "yes, yes, yes". It's the ones who say no occasionally and then provide an explanation as to why they had to say no what will build the deepest relationships.- Dr. Jim Andersonwww.TheAccidentalPM.com"Home Of The Billion Dollar Product Manager"

re: Getting to no

You mention development as a reason for "no". There are as many reasons for no as there are for yes. Is the request aligned with the product charter, strategic intent of the product? Is there enough business opportunity to warrant the development effort? What is the cost of opportunity, would you rather have feature X?All in all, I find that many product managers try to make the product management process transparent. In doing so they cheapen the value of their answer; "yes" and "no". If no evaluation process went behind the "yes" then I have just as much skepticism in it as I do in the "no".

re: Getting to no

Tom Peters has said that to do good work, you must fire clients. You must say no. He insists that his engagements teach him things that he can take with him after the engagement. He is tending his vector of differentiation.I like discontinuous technology, because if I end up being the market leader I can very easily say no. They have no alternatives, and I have the exit barriers on my side.That said, I would never tell my custom application client no, because I'm building their visualization not mine. If they are insisting on black box stuff, then I can say no, and if I wasn't going to do that before they insisted, I will.Not saying no is something you do when you are not different, when you are a complemntor, when you are a commodity. Even then, you still have to weigh the request against the business issues.A customer is not the market. Push the customer's request out to the market and let the market decide. If you do this transparently, the customer will see the market say no, before you tell them no.You might be able to support a proliferation of no's with your marketure, particularly in the late marekt where mass cusomization is a necessity. I wouldn't do that anywhere else other than the late market.If you can't say no, then you are at their mercy--product or real life.