January 23, 2024

Ashley Jefferson: Integrating With Clients as a Fractional Product Manager

Pollen Team
Ashley Jefferson: Integrating With Clients as a Fractional Product Manager

Table of contents

To succeed as a fractional product leader, you have to earn your clients’ trust, get to know their industry as deeply as they do — and stay sane in the process. 

Fractional product manager Ashley Jefferson has this delicate balance figured out. 

Through trial, error, and a lot of intentional reflection, she’s developed repeatable frameworks for starting projects off strong. By asking deep questions about clients and their companies early on, Ashley ensures that her engagements are both productive and fulfilling. 

Being a consultant or fractional leader often requires you to tell your clients the hard truth, give them feedback, and deeply understand their business. This is even more important for fractional product leaders like Ashley, who work in a central part of the business and have to influence and change the minds of founders and executives. 

Ashley recently walked us through two of her key processes that help her do just that: discovery and research. 

Discovery: Ashley’s 3 steps to set up for success

Ashley Grace Consultancy LLC offers a few different engagement models: fractional product leadership, project support, and half-day strategy sessions. Ashley works with many of her clients for weeks or months, so mutual respect and good rapport are critical for her. 

“It’s very much a dialogue when I work with my clients,” she says — starting with the very first call, when she and the prospect determine if they’re a fit for one another. That initial conversation “encompasses a lot,” from learning about the prospect’s business to setting expectations on a potential engagement. 

1. Learn about the client (both the business and the person)

During the discovery call, Ashley digs into both the venture and the founder behind it. 

“I want to see their foresight,” she says. “What do they feel their business needs are? What’s next in their business? What’s blocking them from getting there?” 

To prepare for this call, Ashley conducts some light preliminary research. “I come to that first meeting with a list of questions, insights, and statements,” she explains. Preparation fuels a more productive conversation and demonstrates her credibility. 

2. Look for your red flags

Ashley also treats discovery calls as an opportunity to make sure that she’s going to enjoy working with a client. 

“The goal is to de-risk the odds of committing to an engagement and then realizing that there are some core and fundamental things that don’t work for you,” she says. 

Ashley knows that she prefers not to work with a client who: 

  • Is overly prescriptive or inclined to micromanage 
  • Lacks coachability or is overly fixed in one direction
  • Is egotistical or rude
  • Has no idea why they want help
  • Has a venture Ashley simply doesn’t believe in

These red flags are based on Ashley’s personal experience, and she points out that you can only figure out your own through self-reflection. “Understand your zone of genius and what you can and cannot tolerate,” she says. 

3. Establish ways of working

Ashley also takes the time during an initial call to align on ways of working: “Communication is going to be really important because we’re not in the same room.” 

While Ashley holds firm on her red flags, she’s flexible about how she collaborates with her clients. Whether they prefer Slack or Notion, in-person or virtual, weekly or more frequent meetings, she’ll make it work — as long as the client understands that she’s typically offline after 7 p.m. on weekdays. 

Research: How Ashley dives deep into an industry

Once a client signs on, Ashley doubles down on research. 

First, she asks her clients to brain dump: “I want to hear how they describe their venture,” she says. “Why do they feel like people would engage with this? Why do they think it’s a good idea? What’s driving them?”

Going ‘broad, then deep’

From this high-level starting point, Ashley digs into the industry, target market, and competitors. “I go broad, then deep,” she says. “I’m not going to color in between the lines when I’m doing that initial research. I just want to know what’s out there.” 

During the early stages of research, Ashley gathers content in a Google Doc. She’s not concerned about organization at this point — “I don’t like to be confined,” she jokes — but rather about getting all the information she needs to form an opinion. 

Ashley searches far and wide for information that can help her understand an industry, target users, and potential problems to solve. 

Her research encompasses everything from formal reports by McKinsey and PwC to TikToks to conversations on Reddit. She’ll even sign up for products to understand user experiences firsthand. This gives her a rigorous understanding of the structure of the market at large and what consumers care about.

In addition to Google and social media, Ashley’s research toolkit includes: 

  • ChatGPT Pro (“the best $20 I ever spent in my life,” she says) 
  • Perplexity.ai 
  • Bard 
  • Statista

Identifying the white space

After she gathers as much information as possible, Ashley starts synthesizing her findings into patterns, trends, and insights. 

Through this process, she’s trying to understand a few things: Where is the potential white space? What user needs aren’t being met? What features have consumers come to expect? How do trends in different industries intersect? 

Ashley synthesizes her findings to identify unmet user needs and potential white space for new products. 

For example, she’s been working with a founder in the fitness industry who wants to build an AI-powered workout app. She researched both fitness and AI to understand everything from consumer sentiment about gyms post-COVID to how AI is already being used in the industry. 

Her research revealed that while many apps provide workout routines, most of them make you follow them on your phone. “If I’m working out, I don’t necessarily want to be on my phone,” Ashley says. This made her realize that there was an opportunity to provide a better experience than competitors were offering. 

Translating research into reality

Ultimately, Ashley’s goal is to serve as a thought partner to her clients. “It’s not just a ‘doer’ thing,” she says. “I want to have an opinion. I want to bring things to life that you weren’t necessarily thinking about.” 

Of course, aligning on a product strategy is just the beginning. Once Ashley and her client identify the white space and decide how to fill it, the really hard work begins — building, evolving, and sustaining a competitive product that fills a previously unmet need. 

Translating experience into independence

Becoming an independent consultant “was never a matter of if,” Ashley says. “It was a matter of when.” She took on her first consulting projects as a full-time product manager in the financial services industry.

“I felt like I couldn’t just leave,” she explains. “I had to prove to myself that I was capable.” 

She advises anyone who is considering going independent to do the same: “Taking on small projects helps build your confidence in what your capabilities are outside the workplace.” 

Ashley’s approach shows how confidence, experience, and a commitment to self-reflection contribute to relationships that are as fruitful as they are fulfilling.  

Pollen members can connect with Ashley on the Pollen Community. To join our community of top independent consultants, apply today.

Don't build
your independent business alone
Pollen helps you build your independent career through quality training, trusted mentors, and a powerful peer network.