8 Soft Product Management Skills You Can't Work Without
These soft skills will help you build better products, lead better teams, and ultimately carve a lot of stress out of your life.
As a product manager, you own the product. You carry it from conception to launch and then guide it through continuous delivery. You walk it through strategy, design, and development, and ultimately put it in your customers’ hands. That means you wear a lot of hats and juggle a variety of responsibilities. Each day is unique.
Like many product managers, you may have worked your way up from the product team. You have the hard technical skills to build a product, but your soft leadership skills are undeveloped.
In this article, we’d like to outline some critical soft skills that good product managers exhibit. These will help you build better products, lead better teams, and ultimately carve a lot of stress out of your life.
Looking to improve your product management soft skills? These resources will help.
Naturally, you need to know how to delegate. A lot of product managers, however, make the mistake of delegating tasks when they should be delegating responsibility.
What's the difference? When you delegate a task, you are still the owner of that task. You are the go-to person for all decisions related to that task. If the person you delegated to has a problem or a question, they will come back to you. In many cases, this could keep you just as busy as if you handled the task yourself.
Instead of delegating tasks, delegate responsibility. Empower people with the authority and autonomy to solve problems. Ideally you want to give people responsibility and only hear back when they reach their goal.
Delegating responsibility is a learned skill. You need to fight the urge to check in on your team and resist the temptation to micromanage their day-to-day. Most importantly, you need to know how to debrief your team and give them honest feedback that helps them learn without demoralizing them from accepting responsibility in the future.
2. Business Acumen
It's not enough for your product to simply solve your customers’ problems. The product also has to be profitable. Product managers need a sound understanding of business principles so they can balance the customers’ needs along with the business's needs.
That said, you aren’t the only one in your organization concerned about revenue. Unless you’re a small, early stage startup, you probably have some “business people” who worry about the bottom line. Work with those people, but never forget to advocate for your customer.
Which brings us to another important soft skill…
3. Customer Advocacy
At the end of the day, your product is for your customers. You need to be their biggest advocate inside your organization. You need to be their champion and fight for their concerns and needs.
This skill relies on your ability to understand their needs, identify whether the product meets those needs, and ingrain your product in their lives. How do you do this? By having conversations with real customers (not assumptions or hypotheticals - real conversations) and genuinely considering their feedback.
This skill requires a high level of patience and humility. Sometimes your customers will disrupt your expectations and frustrate your understanding of their needs. The best way to learn to be their advocate is to have lots of conversations. Try to schedule some every week.
4. Domain Knowledge
Domain knowledge is a clear understanding of your industry and your customers’ problems and use cases. You also need to know how the industry changes and what it will look like in the future.
The challenge of domain knowledge is that it doesn't transfer between industries. If your product management experience comes from the healthcare industry, for instance, you'll have a hard time transitioning to the manufacturing industry.
This is a soft skill that develops over time. It’s not something you can study in a weekend. But if you develop deep domain knowledge, you can make yourself extremely valuable to businesses in the same industry.
Where do you gain domain knowledge? The best place to learn about your industry is from your customers. You can also learn from mentors, trade publications, trade shows, your competitors, and experts in your industry.
You may have an entire team of people dedicated to sales, but part of your job as a product manager is to sell the product. No, you don't need to cold call businesses, set up lead funnels, or pressure potential customers. But you do need to know how to relate to prospects, sell the benefits of your product, and answer their questions.
In fact, your sales and marketing teams will come to you when they have questions or when they need help closing a deal. They will rely on you to help them connect with customers, defend the product’s benefits, and justify the pricing. So you’ll have to be ready to sell when they call you in for help.
As the product manager, your organization will probably rely on you to train people how to use the product. You’ll have to train the leaders of sales, marketing, account management, customer success, customer support, any channel partners, and even customers. You may even be tasked with training an investor or two who wants a walkthrough.
While it's critical that you understand the product inside and out, training is more than just the ability to walk someone through the interface. You need to help them see how the product addresses their pain points. You need to anticipate their objections. And you need to recognize what they don’t understand so you can fill in the gaps.
7. Meeting Management
Meetings aren't always the best use of your time, but sometimes they are unavoidable. You’ll need to meet with your team, investors, leaders of other teams within your organization, and even customers.
Meetings are challenging because they can quickly get away from you. A quick 10-minute update can suddenly turn into a 45-minute discussion if no one takes care to keep the conversation focused and moving.
As a product manager, you need to know how to get the most value out of meetings without letting them become a burden on your time or a distraction from more meaningful work. Learn how to host productive meetings in our full guide.
Communication is an important skill for everyone, but product managers use it in a unique way. Since you work with diverse groups of people, you need to know how to quickly identify what the person in front of you needs so you can communicate it to them.
For instance, you may be able to describe the intricate architecture of a product’s feature, right down to the code’s structure, but that level of granularity isn’t useful in most conversations. Even your CEO probably doesn’t care about that much detail. He or she is more concerned about the results of your work.
Your development managers or scrum managers, however, would care about that view of your product. If their job is to build a feature, they are more concerned about the technical criteria you set, not sales figures or marketing opportunities.
Furthermore, it’s important that your communication skills extend to your writing, especially when updating your stakeholders. You should be clear, direct, and know how to justify your communications so people learn to trust you.
Free download: Resources to Learn Product Management Soft Skills
Invest in Yourself
As you can see, soft skills are some of the most important skills you need as a product manager. Sure, you need technical skills to direct your team, but these leadership skills are necessary to build a quality product, please the executive team and investors, and solve your customers’ problems.
You can’t be an expert at everything, especially if you’re new to product management. Don’t expect to master all of the skills we’ve outlined in this article. But if you invest in yourself and find ways to develop these skills, you’ll grow as a product manager.