PM 101 – Working With Sales

PM 101 – Working With Sales

Of all of the teams that Product Managers must deal with on a regular basis, I really can’t think of any that have a worse reputation amongst our kin than Sales teams.  Common tropes that I hear when talking about Sales teams with other Product Managers include things like “they don’t understand the product” or “they make commitments we can’t follow up on” or even “they just lie to make their commission.”  And while each of these statements has a kernel of truth buried inside it, much of the responsibility for these failures on the part of the Sales team can be traced back or shared by the Product team itself.  I personally believe that it’s absolutely essential for a successful Product Manager to have a strong and productive working relationship with their Sales team, and without that it’s nearly impossible to provide the kind of holistic guidance that separates a “good” Product Manager from a “great” one.

Understand Their Motivations

As with many conflicts, issues that Product Managers have with Sales often come from a misunderstanding about what motivates the behavior of the team.  In most organizations, the only measure by which a sales person’s success is measured is by revenue.  This means that sales people, absent other direction and motivation, will be single-minded in their desire to close deals and drive that revenue number up.  In these organizations, as Pragmatic Marketing likes to say, “The job of sales is to sell.”  That’s it; they’re not a support organization, they’re not a marketing organization, they don’t run focus groups, and they’re not always interested in the long-term effects of their actions and behaviors.

So how do we as Product Managers leverage this knowledge?  Simple – when dealing with Sales organizations, we need to “pitch” everything that we want, need, or deliver to them through this simple lens:  “How will this help you close more deals?”  If you can’t answer that simple question, you can’t expect most sales organizations to view you as a valuable contributor or partner in their efforts.  Put on your Product Manager hat and think about Sales as another customer — if we know their goal is to make more money, how can what we do with and for them provide value toward that goal?  Are we providing them with the information that they actually need or are we just repeating the value proposition that someone with no customer context made up and thinks sounds good?

Work With Sales, Not Against Them

Once we understand what the Sales team’s motivation is, we can start to figure out how we can provide value to them and derive value from them.  For example, sales people are very often most focused on two deals — the one they just won or lost, and the one they’re currently working to close.  If you’re expecting to have your Sales team do trend analysis across deals, or to deliver clear and concise summaries of their six-month win/loss reports, you’re likely to be greatly disappointed.  Rather, collect the data from them when it’s fresh in their minds (and in their pocketbooks), so that you can ensure that you’re getting the right information at the right time, and that their reporting isn’t corrupted by the current deal that’s on the table.

On the other side of the equation, we know that Sales will do what they can to close deals — and sometimes this results in them “making things up” or at worst “lying” about the product.  I hate to break it to you, my fellow Product Manager, but if your Sales team is making things up it’s actually your fault for not providing them the right information at the right time, or for not building a trusted relationship with them such that they can feel comfortable bringing you into the conversation or deferring to your input.  I only know a handful of Sales representatives in my life who actually knew when they were making things up and intentionally misled customers into closing deals — and none of them lasted long in a healthy organization.  Rather, most of the “lies” that Sales tells customers come from a lack of knowledge, a lack of appropriate collateral, and certainly a deficit of training.  As Product Managers, we are equally responsible for arming our Sales teams with the tools and information they need to make good promises as we are delivering quality requirements and guidance to our Developers.

If you have a healthy relationship with your sales team, and focus your efforts on making sure that your interactions and deliverables to them are focused on their primary motivating goal — making money — then you’re going to be in a much better position to work with the team rather than butting heads against them and suffering because of it.

Leverage Sales’ Strengths, Minimize Their Weaknesses

In order to level up our relationship with our Sales teams, and to maximize the effectiveness of their work with prospects and our work with them, we need to really dig in and focus on leveraging their strengths.  Every really good sales team out there has clear benefits that they bring to the Product world:

  • Direct contact with the market and both current and prospective users of our solutions;
  • Insight into how to effectively pitch and position our solution to prospective buyers;
  • Feedback when market conditions change and what we believe to be distinctions become table stakes; and
  • Immediate feedback when a deal closes or fails with some understanding of why this happened.

At the same time, nearly every Sales team I’ve worked with has suffered from some combination of the following weaknesses:

  • A very myopic view of the world — last deal, current deal, maybe the next deal;
  • Compensation focused on bringing in new business without context for later downstream effects;
  • Belief that their specific customers represent the entire market, and that specific solutions are generally applicable; and
  • Lack of confidence in selling the value of the product, so feature-level discussion becomes the norm.

If we take some time to look critically at the strengths and weaknesses of our individual Sales teams, we can put on our problem/solution hat as Product Managers and directly engage with them in order to leverage the strengths they bring to the organization and at the same time try to mitigate or minimize the weaknesses that they often suffer from.  Some specific, actionable things that I’ve seen successful in the past:

  • Collect win/loss reports as they’re fresh in the Sales rep’s mind, and do the requisite analysis outside of the team — but communicate it back!!
  • Engage with your Product leader to discuss compensation plans that may take into account lifetime value or even costs of custom development.
  • Actively review collateral and training materials at least every quarter to ensure that they’re reflecting what Sales is telling you.

If we take steps to actively care for and “feed” our Sales teams, we’ll build a much better relationship with them.  This relationship opens doors to greater direct contact with customers, higher-quality information delivered from the field, and an expectations and understanding that it’s “okay” to defer customers to the Product Manager since they know their stuff and want the same things that Sales does.

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