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Why customer support is a great lead into product management

Image courtesy #WOCinTech Chat (Image: Two women collaborating at a desk)

You hear a lot about technical backgrounds and MBAs in the product management field. But, there’s a small portion of product managers who come from a support background; myself included.

I’d speculate that product people with a background in support are underdogs but hey, I’ve always loved an underdog. I am a woman in tech, after all.

Of course, I may be biased because I made the jump from customer support directly to product management. While customer support workers tend to be overlooked and under-appreciated, I’d argue that working support is a natural lead-in to working in product.

And here’s why.

You’re used to not being the hero.

People who work in support hardly get the recognition for dealing with angry and frustrated customers.

The same applies in product. It’s expected that things will work as they’re supposed to. So when something doesn’t work how it should, you’re usually the first in line to take the heat. And when a new release goes well, you’re rarely the hero of the story. You’re not there to be the hero: you’re there to spread the win all around to your developers, engineers, and QA teams. That doesn’t downplay your importance by any means, it’s just not your job to take all the glory.

You know how to get to the root of the problem.

When you’re working support, you’re often presented with a problem without sufficient evidence to diagnose what caused it. This means backtracking, either with the customer or on your own, and working through things the customer has and has not said to try to figure out where the problem started.

In product, you do a lot of the same thing. It’s not enough to look at a feature request; you have to understand the why behind it. Being a product person means knowing and understanding the why and advocating for or against a feature based on that.

This comes in handy particularly with working with developers and engineers. Your job in product isn’t to tell them how to do their job or how to solve the problem; it’s to present them with the problem, explain why solving it is important, and let them do what they do best: solve for it.

You modify how you communicate to fit your audience.

In tech support, you encounter customers with various levels of knowledge about the product and you adjust your vernacular based on that.

As a product manager, you are the product expert. People across the company are going to come to you with questions and you probably wouldn’t explain things to an engineer and a marketer the same way so you adjust. With the engineer, maybe you’ll get more technical and with the marketer you’ll probably be more conversational.

You know how to say no. Emphasis on the how.

In support, you can’t say yes to everything because a lot of times, it’s all out of your control.

In product, you have more control but you know it’s impossible to do everything. Either you don’t have the resources, the request doesn’t align with the product roadmap, or the ROI isn’t there. Regardless of what the reason is, you’re going to have to say no and as you learn in support, how you say it is important. Especially when the people you’re telling no are no longer just your customers — it’s coworkers and stakeholders, too. These are people you have to work with so it’s in both of your best interests to be able to say no, explain why, and maintain a positive working relationship.

Ultimately, there are a lot of things I learned while working in support that made me a better product manager. This list is just a few of them.

Technical backgrounds and MBAs have a place in product and so do support backgrounds. Don’t worry if you feel like you’re out of your depth; a lot of product management is stuff you learn on the job. You don’t have to know everything to get started as a product person — in fact, I’d advise against it. Otherwise, what is there to learn?

I spend a lot of time thinking about books, writing about life, and learning to code. If you’re interested in following my journey to become a programmer, you can follow me on Medium. If you’re a woman in tech who feels like an imposter: I can relate. Feel free to reach out to me, we can talk tech and help shed our imposter syndrome together.