The best product managers are customer-obsessed. They represent the “voice of the customer” for their engineering teams.

Some well-intentioned but ineffective product managers are also customer-focused, but they misunderstand the assignment. They take the customer’s word at face value instead of digging deeper. As Henry Ford said: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

To me, great product managers apply two critical skills when listening to the customer:

  1. They discern whether the customer is describing their core problem (e.g. wanting to travel faster), or a solution they think will solve it (e.g. wanting a faster horse). If it’s the latter, the worst thing I can do is go “yes ma’m!” and build exactly that. It takes good domain knowledge, strong judgment, and some decent sense of tradeoffs to make the right call.

  2. They have the humility to not think they always know better than the customer. After all, while Ford was spot-on about customers not needing faster horses, he was also dead wrong about customers wanting just one style of car: the black Model-T.

It’s a delicate balance. I’ve only seen a few PMs get it right - and even they don’t get it right 100% of the time.