Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Product Launch in a Channel Environment: Listen Up!

Recently, I’ve been looking at the product launch process for my own organization. My background is in academia, so naturally I started pulling out all my product management books, and jumped nearly immediately into a project plan to map out the steps that will lead to success. A word of advice? If you are launching your products through a channel or multiple channels? Don’t do this. Planning a product launch allows a great opportunity to look at challenges in the sales channel and address them directly through the launch of a product.

Don’t lead – Listen.

No matter if you’ve polished your buyer persona, done extensive market research, SWOT analysis, you name it. The individuals who know how to sell into their channels are your sales channel – and it’s critical you sit down and listen to their challenges before you even start a launch plan. The best product launch plans are a detailed discussion and collaboration with all parties. In my own organization, there are multiple channels, in different practice areas, each with unique challenges and needs. So the first thing you need is to sit down 1:1 and start establishing a relationship of trust. If there’s something wrong with sales strategy, collateral, go-to-market strategy, or the product itself, there’s a degree of trust so you colleagues can speak up! Personally this is hard for me to do. There’s tremendous pressure for time to market in product launches – I don’t have the time! But do it – otherwise you’ll be re-tooling your launch plan down the road anyway, and your launch plan won’t be as successful anyway. What’s worse? Because the launch plan may not have everyone on board – your sales may suffer.

Establish your Launch Team.

Decide who needs to be the trusted part of a product launch team! Who should you include? Any part of the organization that is impacted directly by a product launch. This means - product management, consulting, sales, marketing, technical support, and account management, but often there’s more or less depending on the size of your organization, and the complexity. Each brings a different perspective on the challenges in selling and supporting a product when it is launched.
Keep the team small to foster collaboration and dialogue. This is a collaborative working group who’s goal to win at selling the new product. It’s the team’s product – and this means that each brings the needs of their own organization into the mix – to sell and sell well.

Start with “I don’t know”

What’s the biggest risk to a product manager creating a successful product launch? Assuming you and you alone know how to successfully sell to the channel. You don’t – and with all the surveys, focus groups, and presentations – it’s still hard. Start with some ideas, an outline, but be ready to change it often as new ideas, challenges, and opportunities are brought to the table as a team. With your straw-man of a launch plan, start asking the question “Will this work?” “What’s your opinion?” lead with questions that get both better ideas and risks out on the table in the open.

Set your goals – as a team.

It’s too abstract to have a goal “The product launch was successful” Work backwards toward individuals goals. Start by asking “What would make the product launch successful for your team?” Envision success – we’ve reached our goals, we understand the product, our clients are ecstatic. How did you get there? After you’ve reached consensus on ensuring the teams needs are met with the launch, ensure there tasks and owners are set up to deliver tactical what’s needed for a successful launch.

Make refinement of the channel strategy part of the course of your product work...

It would be great if go-to-market strategies just always worked, the reality is that product positioning, channel strategy and ensuring sales are a continually evolving space, where the rules change frequently. Make conversations about successful product launches and channel challenges part of your day to day life as a product manager.