This post is part of a series of short articles about the 20 most crucial product management skills.
What it means
Customer & industry domain skills cover the understanding and making correct trade-off decisions about the needs and use cases of the customers, as well as constraints and trends of the industry you are operating in. This includes industry dynamics as well as applicable rules, regulations, and other constraints.
Why it is an important skill
You can't create a great product without being an expert on your customer's needs and problems. It doesn't matter if you are a visionary with a keen insight into untapped demand, iterating your way to product market fit through constant prototyping and customer feedback, optimizing an existing solution to unlock additional value, or expanding into adjacent market segments: without understanding what your users and customers want or need, there is no condition under which you create a successful product.
Opening the aperture a little wider, industry knowledge is about not just understanding your customers, but also the other forces that are prevalent in the industry, including competitors, possible entrants, suppliers, or substitutions of your product (Porter's Five Forces). Without understanding these industry dynamics, you won't be able to build up competitive advantages, which are required for long-term success. Without competitive advantages, it is easy for competitors with deeper pockets, a leaner cost structure, or higher velocity to drive your product out of the market.
Lastly, particularly in regulated industries, it is crucial to understand rules and regulations that apply to your product, how they might be evolving, and even how they might be influenced. These rules and regulations act as constraints on your product, and skating where the puck is going (or even influencing where the puck is going) can make or break a promising product.
What great looks like
Product managers who are great at customer and industry knowledge are experts in their area. They are sought out for their knowledge on their industry domain within the company and outside of it. They soak up all the information that they can find, and make it accessible to the rest of the team.
For great product manager, their customer and industry knowledge isn't just encyclopedic: they constantly apply that knowledge, for example, to identify opportunities or identify trade-offs.
How to improve your customer and industry knowledge
To build customer and industry knowledge, there is simply no replacement for talking to your customers. If there are things standing in the way of regularly interacting with your customers on a 1:1 basis, ideally without a too pre-determined agenda, give your best to overcome those obstacles. The best product teams talk to their customers on at least a weekly basis.
Beyond direct conversations with customers, you should also soak up all the other signals you get from your customers: support tickets, sales calls, customer communities, etc. You should just be aware that these interactions typically have a strong agenda from one side and have a biased sample – for example, support tickets only ever give you a perspective of customers who've run into a problem (but are attached enough to product to try and want to solve it), and the customer has the agenda of getting their problem solved – so it's hard to find out much about the customer outside of the scope of the problem they are facing.
A great way to bootstrap customer and industry knowledge is talking to domain experts within the company. Especially more junior product managers should make use of this as much as they can – domain experts often feel validated and accomplished if they can help someone get up to speed on their domain, as long as you try to not be too much of a burden and stay genuinely interested and curious.
Lastly, you should stay up to date on the industry itself by consuming whatever news sources are relevant to the industry. This varies immensely and could range from Twitter over industry publications through to specific trade shows and conferences.
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