Product Launches- The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

by Scott Hilton –

On October 11, 2019, the Product Executive Forum(PEF) held another well attended meeting. This month’s topic was product launches. Many thanks to Steven Veneman and Julius Francis of Juniper Networks for serving as awesome hosts.

According to research from Robert G Cooper only 1 in 7 product launches succeed. Since the PEF group was not happy with these odds, we explored why this happens and the best practices exist that exist to make launches more successful. 

Product launches are one of the most complex events an organization can execute. It requires timing and cross-organizational alignment across Product Development, Supply Chain, Operations, Business Operations, Marketing, PR, Sales, C-suite and most importantly the target customers and market. Given the complexity, there are many things that can go wrong. So let’s examine what the PEF identified as key contributors to a product launch success or failure. The attendees all came from B2B companies so the insights are slanted to organizations that are selling higher priced, higher complexity products to a concentrated market place.

Eleven Reasons Why Launches Fail to Meet Expectations

The group developed a list of reasons why product launches fail. These are all issues that the attendees (VPs and Directors of Product Management and Product Marketing) have all personally experienced.

  1. Lack of clear definition and buy-in across stakeholders on success criteria for launch.
  2. Lack of a Launch owner to align all of the stakeholders to the launch program.
  3. The target market and customer segment are poorly defined. It is not clear who we sell to and why they want to buy.
  4. The messaging focuses on product features and not how the product helps the customer solve their urgent issues.
  5. The product is simply not ready for launch
    • QA not sufficiently complete – poor customer experience
    • No launch customers for validation and reference
    • Sometimes critical steps are skipped such as beta testing in order to tighten the schedule (features removed during development process to shorten schedule)
  6. Not considering switching costs. The technology may be great and “game changing” but the cost to acquire the benefits of the technology may be too high.
  7. Lack of sales training and awareness before launch. Will the sales people have to change how they sell and who they sell to? If so, the sales people may be reluctant to change.
  8. Sales people may suffer from lack of confidence in the product. Since people are putting their own reputations on the line when they sell, they are reluctant to promote a product they don’t believe in
  9. On the other hand, sales people may be overconfident in the product. As a result, they may oversell and make promises that the product cannot deliver on.
  10. Falling victim to “Curse of Knowledge”. This curse states that people who are experts assume that everyone else has their same level of knowledge and understanding of the product. The product and development teams have lived this product for months or years. As a result, it becomes very difficult to communicate with “non-experts” such as sales people, marketing teams and customers.
  11. Viewing the launch as a one time event. All of the excitement builds and then after the launch, the enthusiasm wanes. So we:
    • Sub-optimize demand generation
    • Fail to continuously train sales and sales engineering
    • Don’t involve customer success teams in the installation
    • Neglect that with subscription based products that retention programs are often more important than the launch.

Four Key Mistakes to Avoid

Neil Baron shared what his firm sees as four big mistakes companies make when launching products (or services).

  1. Treating the launch as an event and not a process to be followed. In order to have a successful launch, there must first be a potentially successful product. This requires understanding the problem that the product solves for the marketplace and identifying who are the customers who are most likely to buy. Towards the end of the session, we described a process that increases the odds of a successful launch (see graphic below).
  2. Not effectively executing the beta program (or skipping a beta program entirely). Most organizations treat the beta test process as simply gathering proof that the product works according to spec. However, the beta should be much more than that. The beta should lay the foundation for a successful product launch. A well executed beta program contains a strategy for addressing these issues
    • Identifying the customers should be asked to participate in the beta
    • Setting the expectations of the customers who are invited to participate in the beta
    • Identifying the types of data that should be captured during the beta. This data will enable an organization to create a value proposition that resonates with your target market
    • Creating a process to collect the desired data
    • Establishing a plan to involve beta customers in the launch process as testimonials
  3. Not involving customers in the launch. If the beta program is established properly, customer testimonials are negotiated well before the launch date. Too many organizations have to scramble to identify testimonials for quotes days before the launch.
  4. Not assigning a quarterback for the launch. A typical B2B product launch requires the coordinated efforts of many organizations across an organization. Without a launch QB, people can work like crazy and the launch will disappoint. The organizational stovepipes can be hard to coordinate.

A Framework for a Successful Launch

We discussed that there are actually six steps to a winning launch. They are outlined in this chart.

Being aware of these launch pitfalls is the first step in laying the framework for a more successful launch.

And utilizing the beta program effectively to collect the data to develop a winning value proposition and the testimonials to back up your claims, can dramatically increase your odds of success.

As Robert G Cooper has stated, a weak value proposition is the #1 reason that products fail.

Some interesting additional observations that came out of the discussion included:

  • Who leads a product launch? Product Management, Product Marketing or a Launch team
  • How do product launches change when the product is a Continuous deployment SaaS product?
  • The essential need for customer input through all stages of product development and lifecycle. Not just at launch.

About the author

Scott Hilton has had a long career in Technology focused on telecommunications, security, Cloud based services and Software-as-a-Service. In his 30+year career, he has been a product management, product strategy and software development leader building world class products and organizations for companies like Lucent, 3Com, and Oracle. In addition, he has helped start and scale multiple technology startups including SpringTide Networks (sold to Lucent) and Dyn (sold to Oracle). Scott is now an Angel Investor, Writer and Instructor at Tufts Gordon Institute. He holds a B.S. in Electrical Engineering from Duke University and an M.S. in Electrical and Computer Engineering from George Mason University.


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