How Internal Products Help Zalando Meet Customer Needs

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Filip Sobiecki

Apr 27, 2022 • 8 min read
How Internal Product Management Differs from Customer-Facing Product Management

While both internal and customer-facing product management have their similarities, there are also plenty of differences. Not only are the context and the audience of your product different, how you manage the project and communicate with stakeholders are also vastly different experiences.

Someone who knows just how different product management is for internal products is Mariana Tibuh, Senior Product Manager at Zalando Lounge. Mariana joins Disruption Talks to shed some light on what it means to be a Product Manager for internal products. We’ve already heard from a few customer-facing product managers on this podcast, but Mariana offers some unique insights into how developing internal products differs.

Zalando is a leading online platform for fashion and lifestyle items, popular across 23 countries in Europe. With around €10.4billion net sales in 2021, over 17,000 employees, and more than 48 million active customers, Zalando is a widely successful brand that’s seeing impressive growth.

Behind any successful ecommerce platform is always a solid product management strategy, but not just on the customer-facing side. To keep everything organized and running smoothly, a business like Zalando needs internal products that work effectively and help the company deliver exceptional service to customers.

Mariana explains what her day-to-day responsibilities are like as a Senior Product Manager and also what Zalando’s internal product development strategy looks like.

What is an internal-facing product?

An internal product is a tool that your organization uses internally without offering it to external clients or customers. Internal tools can be used to support business functions, drive growth, manage sales, and so on. Your organization can either build an internal product in-house or outsource it to another company.

Being an internal product manager means that you need to satisfy the very specific needs of the business you’re working with. In most cases, that product must also (indirectly) satisfy the needs of their customers as well.

For example, if the internal tool is a CRM or HR tool, then it should be built with features that meet the needs of the business using the tool. In this example, the tool should help them manage customers or employees more effectively or reduce time spent on management.

However, as this tool will also affect the experience the end customers have, their needs must also be considered. If the tool in question leads to friction or frustration for the end customers, then it could be deemed ineffective or not fit for purpose.

For this reason, internal product management can be much more complicated than developing customer-facing products because of the different needs that must be met.

Filip Sobiecki: Can you give us a short personal introduction?

Mariana Tibuh: I’ve been doing product development for about seven to eight years, having initially started in operations. While working in operations, I learned more about product development and started interacting with developers. This made me quickly realize I was more interested in being closer to the product, and so I moved into the product world.

What does a day in the life look like for a Senior Product Manager?

I work in a team called Logistics Tech, which is an internal team for the logistics department. We look at internal tools and figure out how to create better ones so they can scale with the company.

I’m focused on understanding what my projects are, coordinating with stakeholders, and keeping everyone in the loop.

I also spend a lot of time in meetings with my own team planning products and with stakeholders to discuss where we’re heading next.

What’s the most exciting thing on the roadmap for Zalando?

Last year my team was newly formed, so we focused a lot on discovery and understanding the landscape of the team to figure out a clear roadmap. 2022 is all about executing those plans and bringing the KPIs and our North Star into action. We’re focusing on creating more efficient, automated tools and processes for the future.

How is working with customer-facing products vs. internal products different?

Both have their challenges, but the good thing about customer-facing product management is that everyone talks about it. The difficulties are discussed and dealt with more openly than in internal product management.

In some ways, internal product management is a lot more technical and vague, so it’s harder to understand.

Even though the stakeholders are closer to the business, sometimes that’s the problem. They already know the problems and come up with their own ideas and specific requests, which can be hard to juggle.

Another challenge is that it’s harder to outline KPIs in an internal product team. They can’t be directly tied to conversion rates, for example.

What are the best KPIs for internal product teams?

There’s no one single right answer. You might want to measure the speed at which your internal user completes a task, or maybe you want to measure how many data points you’re capturing. There’s no one best KPI to measure.

However, the best way to decide on your KPIs is to discuss them with your stakeholders. You shouldn’t set KPIs on your own because you don’t really know if you’re solving your customers’ problems.

In internal product management, your customer is not the end-user, so it’s a case of solving problems for both your customer and their customer as well. To do that effectively, you need to work closely with your stakeholders.

Do you have any tips and tricks for internal product management?

Communication is the most important thing.

You should always try to over-communicate, be clear and realize that your message might not be easily understood. It might be very technical or abstract.

My other piece of advice is to know your customers and the problems they need to solve so you don’t lose sight of what your product should accomplish.

What should every product team avoid when developing internal products?

One of the biggest things to avoid is getting worn down with endless requests. There are so many internal requests because your customer is so close to the product and problem. It becomes easy to just say yes to the big red button or the drop-down menu someone asks for.

However, just like in customer-facing products, you need that discovery stage, which is crucial for any product manager or developer to stay on target.

Sometimes you need to be firm about dealing with requests and refer people to the discovery stage.

That way, you help the team avoid building something that won’t make sense in six months’ time.

In your LinkedIn bio, you mention embracing uncertainty and having a “mindset of maybe.” Can you elaborate?

We don’t always have certainty in the world, but if you wait for it, you might lose out on opportunities. Sometimes you need to go with your gut feeling and trust what your experience has taught you. Trying things and failing is better than waiting for the ideal time to move.

This discussion is part of our Disruption Talks recordings, where we invite experts to share their insights on winning innovation strategies, the next generation of disruptors, and scaling digital products. To get unlimited access to this interview and more insights from industry experts, sign up here.

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Filip Sobiecki

Senior Executive at Netguru and host of Disruption Talks
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