How Product Managers and Sales teams can work effectively together

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Mastering the delicate relationship between the builders and sellers

In my experience, product managers can often be quite snobbish when it comes to sales. I think it’s the cliche of sales people being Wolf of Wallstreet chest thumpers. But sales people don’t (always) live up to this outdated cliche of course, and a healthy, solid relationship between product and sales can make life easier for everyone, ultimately resulting in building a better product.

Why the sales / product relationship is critical

 

  • Direct contact with potential customers – without sales teams, PMs can sometimes struggle to interact directly with customers and potential customers. Potential customers are particularly interesting because as a PM you can understand why customers might not choose you.
  • Price sensitivity and product strategy – if one of the reasons potential customers aren’t choosing you is due to pricing concerns, this helps you to gauge the price elasticity of your product and helps to inform your product strategy.
  • Generate revenue and become more commercial – once PMs set aside any preconceived notions of what selling and sales teams mean, they’ll inevitably get a better understanding of how to make money and become more commercial. 

1. Be upfront, candid and honest – sales people see through BS

Let’s face it. Sales people can see through BS quicker than most. That’s why I always think it’s best to be as open, upfront and honest with sales people as possible. What does openness, honesty and being candid look like a product <-> sales context?

Well, if the sales team has asked for something to be developed and you genuinely know that the chances of it ever getting built are close to zero, then tell the truth. Over promising and under delivering is the fastest way to damage your relationship with a sales team so it’s always best to manage expectations properly.

Sales teams tend to appreciate honesty – and that way, you can always work together to achieve an alternative if necessary. If, for example, you know that the feature they’ve asked for is not going to be built any time soon, suggest a temporary workaround that might work in the short term instead.

 

Building allies on the defence

Similarly, I believe it’s important for product people to defend product teams when faced with unfair criticism from any team – including sales teams. When you’re not involved day to day in the building of a product, it’s easy to peer into the world of product and criticise the velocity of development, the features that are prioritised or indeed the product itself.

Honesty and candid conversations can be helpful in this context; if you feel your team is facing undue criticism from commercial colleagues, tell them directly that it’s not appreciated and explain clearly why their criticism is unfounded. Whilst this might stir a few feathers in the short term, they’ll appreciate you more for doing so over time. And often, exchanges like this can help you to build strong allies in your sales team; once they know you’re the one who is open, honest and assertive, you’ll become a go-to asset for many internal commercial partners.

 

 

2. Align incentives

Imagine a scenario where sales teams are incentivised by one thing only: to acquire new customers.

On the surface this might seem sensible (your sales teams are meant to sell your product, right?). But once you dig deeper you’ll realise that the incentives might not actually be aligned in a way which ensures the business succeeds.

This scenario reminds me of the relationship between engineering and QA; in ineffective teams, engineers will throw work over the wall to QA and let them deal with any bugs found through testing. Similarly, when sales teams have few incentives other than to acquire a customer, they’ll throw that customer over the wall into product and hope for the best.

The sales and product relationship is most effective when at least some of the incentives are aligned. Sure, acquiring customers is absolutely critical, but if those customers are low quality, churn immediately or are unable to figure out how to use your product, something else needs to be addressed.

Imagine instead, a scenario where both sales and product are incentivised to achieve user-centric metrics like customer activation or customer happiness indexes. With aligned incentives, a customer isn’t just ‘thrown over the wall’ to product; instead they’re hand held throughout the onboarding process by sales folks concerned about the customer’s first experience and a product team incentivised to help craft this experience, too.

 

3. Become a sales person yourself

One of the quickest ways to truly empathise with the lives of sales people is to actually become a sales person yourself. Now, this doesn’t mean to actually become a full time sales person, but there is a ton of value in spending at least some time in the role of a salesperson. Why?

Firstly, you’ll expose yourself to customers and potential customers more than you’d ever do in a day to day role in product. And this is super helpful in so many ways. By speaking to real world potential customers, you’ll understand what they actually find valuable.

By asking customers to pay for your product, you’ll quickly realise what their objections might be:

‘Oh it’s missing X feature’

‘We’re a small company, we’re not sure this is the right fit for us’

‘I’m really desperate for a mobile app and one of your competitors has this so we’re going to go with them’

‘I’m happy with my current provider and the cost of switching is too high’.

Each of these nuggets of gold has potential consequences for your product strategy and roadmap.

Sales objection handling

 

Not only that, but by speaking to real potential customers, you’ll interact with real world people – and not just usability testing / user research participants.

Real humans vs. user research participants

In my experience, when you invite users to take part in usability or user research testing, you inevitably attract a certain type of customer: a customer who knows such a thing exists and enjoys taking part in usability and user research testing.

This isn’t to say that you won’t get a huge amount of value from those sessions with those types of customers, but it’s always worth remembering that there’s selection bias at play when you speak to those folks.

Most of us have never taken part in user research or usability testing for products we enjoy using. Why? Because we’re often too busy. And busy people are often the people who matter.

When you’re speaking to potential customer prospects, you’re chatting to busy people who typically haven’t got time for usability testing and instead just want their problems to be solved by your product. Being exposed to this type of customer is incredibly valuable.

 

4. Involve commercial stakeholders in key strategic decisions

Commercial stakeholders should always have a place at your strategic decision making forum. Whether it’s a Product Council, decision den or some other forum, commercial stakeholders must have a seat at the table.

Strategic decision making forums are often reserved for senior PMs or heads of product, but all members of the product team will be involved to some extent.

By involving commercial partners in the overall strategic decision making process, commercial team members will understand the trade offs involved in making product investment decisions – and will often influence the direction of the product, too.

More commercially-led CEOs will sometimes veer towards a more commercially led strategy and internally it can sometimes feel like a stand off between product and commercial. But this shouldn’t really be the case in an ideal world. If the business is challenged with bringing in X amount in additional revenues, it is up to sales, marketing and product to determine how best to achieve those targets.

Customer acquisition costs, product activation rates, LTV (lifetime value) are all metrics that help grow the bottom line and impact both the sales and product teams.

 

 

5. Help sales people understand the complexity of software development

Finally, just as product people will learn a lot from a day spent with a sales team, it’s often super helpful for sales people to get a deeper understanding of the software development process.

Not only does this help you build stronger relationships with the sales team based on a shared understanding of the complexity involved in building products, it’ll also make the sales folks feel more embedded into the product development process. Plus, it will help them with conversations with customers where they need to manage expectations, just as you manage expectations with sales.

Practical ways to help sales people understand the software development process

 

  1. Cross functional stand ups – just as many product teams work in a cross functional ‘squad’-type structure, why not occasionally also invite sales reps to some stand ups to get a better understanding of the day to day work involved in building a product.
  2. Training – dedicated training where sales people are taught the basics of things like agile development and web technologies can go a long way. Most sales training is focused on selling – and not on gaining a deeper understanding of the underlying technology or process of what’s being sold.
  3. Invites to demos – try this for size: imagine inviting your sales team to your demos and getting them to co-demo a new feature that’s been released recently. Sure, not all features will be relevant to your team but your sales folks will appreciate the time taken to invite them to demos.
  4. Co-creation sessions – if there are features that have been prioritised that your sales team care about, try inviting them to co-creation sessions where you can work together on developing the feature from scratch. Design sprints and other workshops can work well here – and even if you don’t end up using the ideas generated, the sense of involvement will help build a solid relationship.

Final thoughts

Yes, there’s inevitably some tension between sales, marketing and product. But much of this is down to personality types and miscommunication.

Once you’ve built a solid relationship between sales and product, with shared, mutual goals and aligned incentives, you’ll ultimately be working towards something that you can both agree on: building a better product for customers in delightful, margin-enhancing ways.

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