A year and a half ago I published a post called ‘The Big Whales in Your Pond’. It was about how to manage requests that are coming from strategic/tier 1 customers and interfere with your roadmap.
Lately, I’ve been questioned several times about this topic from various mentees, so I re-read my post to see if it indeed covers all the wisdom I’ve learned.
The good news is that after re-reading it I believe it still contains solid advice, so you should definitely read it. The other news is that I believe I managed to acquire additional ‘wisdom’ since I posted this, so I thought it’d be a good opportunity to share what I’ve learned in this post.
So the context here is that we are trying to establish solid and consistent progress on our roadmap, and yet – we’re constantly being interrupted by various ‘high-priority’ requests from strategic customers (who I call ‘whales’). Whether it’s customer success, sales or the CEO – everyone wants us to drop everything and do it now (or commit to a deadline which is in the very near future).
If you are not a brand new product manager then certainly it happened to you.
Happening once – it’s ok. Everyone is called to the flag – so let’s do it!
Happening constantly – then Houston, we got a problem. The roadmap barely sees any progress, and the engineering team is pissed off about all of these context switches.
Now, again, in the original post I provided some solid advice as for how to address it when it happens.
So, what’s new?
In this post I’d like to help ‘architecting’ your reality and help you plan your roadmap in a way that caters to such incidents without taking a big hit.
Having ‘big whales’ as customers is a good thing
First, let’s look on the bright side for a second. If you have Walmart, Amazon or other whales as a customer – then this is a good thing. If you have more than one – then it’s even amazing!
They usually help you to aggressively push your ARR up and they are a great logo to put on your website.
Now that we have acknowledged this, let’s talk about what it takes to keep them in line.
Whales are hungry mammals
Have you ever seen the amount of food a whale consumes on a daily basis? If you haven’t – go watch some National Geographic or Discovery videos. We’re talking about enormous amounts of fish each day.
Hence, if your company has signed a contract with a whale – it’d be silly to assume that your reality before and your reality after are going to be the same.
In other words, signing up a big whale may impact several of the product spheres of responsibilities (here). Let’s see how it impacts each and how to manage this in advance.
The product strategy
Screw the strategy. You managed to fish a whale!
Just kidding. 🙂
You know I take the product strategy seriously. If you too, and you’ve applied everything I recommended doing – then the fact that your company is fishing for this whale should already be part of the plan, right? It’d be weird if your product strategy that everyone agreed to is mentioning a specific segment of the market that you should go after, but your sales are chasing market segments which are different.
If such a misalignment exists – then deal with it before the whale is caught on the hook. Once the sales people feel that they can bring in a huge customer (even though it doesn’t fit the agreed profile) – it’d be hard to stop them. Believe me. They will convince your CEO why it’s good for the company (and most likely not for the right reasons), and the product will suffer as a consequence.
An argument you can use which is always true:
Q: What is worse than failing to sell to a tier 1 customer?
A: Failing to retain one…
After all – if your sales team managed to get a whale as a customer, but there is a product misalignment which cannot be gapped in a trivial manner – the whale will eventually leave your pond. Believe me – taking off a tier 1 customer logo from your site is much worse than failing to put it in the first place.
Ok… but life isn’t black or white. Sometimes the question whether your company should chase whales at its stage is not so cut & clear, and some can argue it is part of the agreed strategy. In such a reality where it’s all a bit gray and your sales managed to bring on board a tier 1 customer you need to ask yourself what does it mean for your strategy?
If it’s gray – it means that your product may be a good fit for this customer, but maybe not… or maybe just not now.
Having this whale as a signed customer means that you have no choice but to revisit your strategy. Recall – a product strategy is both the goals of where you want your product to be 1.5-2 years from now and the plan on how to get there.
Having such a big customer sign may require you to accelerate your plans. For example – it could be that you wanted to reach a product market fit with this type of customer a year from now, but because of the signing you’ll need to make changes for doing it now.
If you won’t do it on your own terms, others will probably do it for you, and on their own terms. So stay flexible.
Now, if you can’t, for whatever reasons – then you will need to micromanage this like I explained in the original post.
The product roadmap
The sales cycle with whales is usually very long. That’s good for you (but naturally challenging for your sales people). It gives you enough time to have a plan ready. As the deal matures, more details will become clear, especially when it comes to what are the customer’s expectations.
If you don’t want your roadmap to fall apart, re-construct it yourself in advance, and make sure it caters to the main requirements of such a customer.
Of course, like I wrote in the original post – you should aim to design your features that will appeal to as many customers as possible, and not specifically to this whale. It may require you to meet with this customer before they are actually customers (meaning – during the sales cycle). Talk to them and try to understand the underlying pain behind each requirement. Most likely is that you’ll find out that you can design a generalized solution that will cater to many of your customers. Make sure to align the sales team on that, so they won’t promise to the customer a tailor-made solution that suits only them.
Adjusting the roadmap in advance also allows you to align with sales on the timeline of the delivery. That will significantly increase the chances of the deal to be signed with commitments & deadlines you can work with.
The quarterly planning
I devoted a post on how to effectively conduct quarterly planning (here). Aside from the advice in this post, my advice for this case is quite straightforward:
Unless you know exactly what the customer is expecting, allocate a buffer for this (type of) customer, and allocate a sprint (or two in extreme cases) for catering to their requirements.
Make sure to ‘pad’ your plan with some ‘bonus’ items in case that eventually the deal doesn’t mature, or the requirements are much easier to implement than originally anticipated.
The second part of my advice is to communicate the buffer you’ve allocated to the business team (sales, support and customer success) and reach an overall agreement that this is the maximum amount of time you are willing to allocate to this customer.
Having this discussion during the quarterly planning will save you many arguments during the quarter and will reduce tension.
There is one outcome that you need to consider – the business team may disagree with you on the buffer size and claim it’s too small.
At this point you’ll be entering a negotiation where you need to explain to the business team what capabilities will be sacrificed if the buffer is increased (or better – let them choose) or how the overall KPIs of the business are going to take a hit.
From my experience – once the business team truly understands the prices they need to pay for increasing the buffer – it’s much easier to get an alignment.
Hands on; Sprint planning
On the day-2-day the business may often come to you and tell you that the ‘whale is hungry and needs to be fed now!’.
Don’t get excited or emotional. Simply explain to them that it doesn’t work like that. You have a quarterly plan you’ve all agreed on and there should be a strong justification to shove in unexpected stuff.
If they still believe there is a strong justification – invite them to the next sprint planning to share their case.
From my experience and with the exception of production issues – almost everything can wait one sprint.
So… that’s it for today!
If you found this post/series useful – let me know in the comments. If you think others can benefit from it – feel free to share it with them.
Thank you, and until next time 🙂