For a long time, the product management space has been divided into two disciplines: B2C and B2B. Most product managers would develop their careers within one of the disciplines, moving between companies of the respective type. This, also as a result of CEOs and CPOs traditional preference to hire product managers within the same discipline.
Technology evolution, along with the adoption of B2C product philosophy, roadmap creation, and development practices by B2B (especially SaaS) companies have led to a change in the traditional distinction between the two “sides of the 2”.
Are we witnessing a unification of the two worlds? What are the key differences between B2B and B2C product managers? What do you need to consider when making a transition or when hiring a product manager from a different discipline? Here is a summary following conversations with colleagues, candidate interviews and from my own experience in the B2B and B2C landscapes.
B2C product managers develop empathy to users: they are focused on making the user happy and engaged, they make an effort understanding how the user feels and put thought into making the user experience as frictionless as possible.
On the other hand, for B2B product managers, customer centricity mostly translates into customer retention and preventing the loss of an account to a competitor.
This is a fundamental difference in the product management mindset and one of the trickiest gaps to bridge, especially when moving from the B2B to the B2C space.
Listener and interviewer vs. “hypothesisers” and analyzers
B2B product managers are interviewers and listeners. These competencies are crucial to translate customers’ requests into product capabilities and validate new product direction against customers’ needs. Don’t underestimate the ability to interview and listen effectively. In an era of hyper data-sharing and instant gratification, the restraint inherent to being a listener is rare.
B2C product managers build hypotheses. Driven by data analysis, the hypotheses address specific KPIs in a fitting manner. High-scale, high-pace, KPI-driven experimentation and testing that characterize leading B2C product teams require proficiency with data analysis, dashboards, and highly analytical thinking.
Domain and industry knowledge
B2B product managers are domain experts. They have in-depth knowledge of their industry. Be it a banking, telco, insurance or education business, the product manager has to have a deep understanding of the customers’ business processes and workflows. This is crucial not only because the product manager has to build a valuable product, but also due to two other reasons:
(1) The majority of B2B products are part of a broader and more complex workflow, which the product manager has to master in order to understand users requirements, integration points, and what it takes from the customer’s point of view to either deploy the product or even just to upgrade to its latest release.
(2) To harness the trust and the buy-in of sales. In most B2B companies, as a product manager, you’ll never be in a customer-facing position without the account team becoming comfortable with the added value you can bring to such a high-stake forum. Such added value comes from industry knowledge and domain expertise.
B2C product teams deliver new product capabilities more often compared to their B2B counterparts. In most cases, they deliver at a high pace simply since they can as they are in ‘control’ of the entire user journey.
An iterative features release-testing-improvement cycle, common to leading B2C product teams, enables fast and accurate feedback for the new product feature and a higher degree of control over the cost of non-successful features. Although CI/CD and other practices have been adopted across the tech industry, B2B included, in the B2B space, the pace of new features delivery (to production) is controlled mainly by the customers — business organizations apprehensive about frequent changes to their operation. As a result, beside being less frequent, new B2B product releases are typically much larger in scope.
Product KPIs and success metrics
B2C product managers build products with the goal of serving millions, 10s or even 100s of millions of users. B2B product managers build products that serve a much smaller number of customers. For B2C product managers, any figure below millions of users, is considered a failure in terms of market adoption, while for B2B product managers, adoption by a very few customers may be considered a success. This difference means that in order to attract such a high number of users, B2C product managers, more than their B2B counterparts, have to be intimately familiar with the user acquisition efforts and the related cost (CAC). B2C product managers have to closely collaborate with marketing and retention teams to deliver product improvements and changes in order to reduce acquisition costs and improve retention metrics.
True, the importance of user interface design in B2B products has significantly increased over the past years, partially as B2B customers have higher expectations: they, too, expect a sleek and comfortable UI. Still, design and usability in the B2C space have much higher focus and attention.
B2C product managers understand design concepts, perform usability tests, and work with product designers to build and optimize product design.
An excellent B2B product has a good user interface, but B2B product managers usually focus more on the functional aspects, knowing that, in most cases: (1) the user of the product will spend hours using the product, and therefore, will be able to operate the product fluently regardless of its design and usability, and — (2) big companies with a high number of users are equipped with internal support and training teams that will service any usage challenge.
Over the past few years, the lines between B2C and B2B product management have blurred. The traditional B2B functional-scalable-only product mindset has changed. On the other hand, B2C products have adopted much more complex “backend” technologies that were traditionally the realm of B2B products and have become more available in an era of “API and SaaS of everything”.
Despite the common ground, there are still major differences between the roles, from mindset to domain expertise, that are not easy to grasp before making a transition or when hiring one “type” of product manager for the other “type” of company.
For product managers and hiring managers alike, I recommend to identify the differences expected in the specific situation, understand the impact of the expected gaps on the specific role, product and company and consider the effort and time required to bridge these gaps, while remembering that this will be added to the natural effort of onboarding to a new company.