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How Product Management Can Work Effectively with Sales


You need sales to sell your product and sales needs you to make a product they can sell.

Nothing surprising there, but in order to create an organization that is dynamic and responsive to the market while still generating revenue, the relationship between sales and product management can—and should—be much deeper.

An effective relationship with sales lets everyone do a better job; sales is equipped with tools, support, and information that makes it easier to close while product management gets real-world feedback and exposure to high-level prospects they could never get themselves.

Want to help foster a collaborative alliance with your sales team? Try some of these tactics for improving your relationship:

1. Help them sell the product you have

How many times have you heard a salesperson say a prospect would buy your product if only it did X or had feature Y? It’s not an uncommon occurrence, and it’s not because you have a sub-par sales team. They’re merely reacting to what they see and hear when they’re out talking to prospects and being compared to the competition.

More often than not, a lead is asking for something your product doesn’t do because they’re stalling, seeking leverage, or don’t have the gumption to just say no. Your sales team is merely parroting this feedback to you and your management team because they don’t want the reason they couldn’t close a deal to be their fault.There are two strategies for combatting this “if only” dynamic:

A. Partner with the sales team so they give the right pitch.

Your potential customer has a problem, you have a solution (it’s called your product). If your product doesn’t address their problem, your sales team either hasn’t shown them that yes, they DO have the problem your product will solve, or they are simply trying to sell to the wrong people, company, or industry. You don’t simply want customers — you want the right customers.

B. Make potential customers put their money where their mouth is.

Let’s say your sales team really has uncovered a legit prospect that is itching to make that purchase if only your product did one other thing; in this case, they should have no problem placing a contingency-based order. While this doesn’t mean that sales can promise features or functionality without getting approval from product management and engineering, it does mean that if the requested enhancement fits into the overall product roadmap and direction of the product, it shouldn’t be ruled out.

If it makes sense — and the customer has dedicated budget, internal buy-in, executive approval, installation dates and details squared away — then it shows you’re flexible and responsive to the market. Plus your sales team should have many more of these deals lined up once the “if only” gets implemented, if it’s truly that much of a dealmaker.

2. Go on sales calls…but not every sales call.

There is nothing like seeing how a potential customer reacts to your product’s value proposition and messaging in person. No trip report will include details like which features caused them to check their watch and what prompted follow-up questions and scribbling in notebooks.

Most salespeople love having the uber-knowledgeable product manager along for the ride; if they don’t know the answer, they’ve got the expert right in the room, plus it can only make the prospect feel that much more valued that you were inclined to attend.

Unfortunately, if you start going on too many sales calls, a few things can happen. First, you might merely be seen as “the demo monkey” that salespeople trot out to impress their customers and do the grunt work. Second, you might become a crutch for some salespeople who find themselves unable to articulate the value and nuances of your product themselves.

Finally, you might not have enough time to get your actual work done! Travel is a time-consuming activity, and while it’s great to get “out of the building,” you need to be in it at least some of the time to do the rest of your job.

Another great experience is to actually make a sales call completely on your own. This obviously shouldn’t be for a key account, but going through the process solo can be a humbling experience and might shed some light on a few areas where sales enablement could use some extra help.

3. Sit in on account and pipeline reviews.

The goal of attending sales reviews isn’t just to satisfy your morbid curiosity about what salespeople actually do all day or to feel important, it’s to understand what roadblocks your sales team is running into and to offer advice or guidance on what product features or characteristics might be useful to close the deal. Whether it’s suggesting they demo a certain aspect of the product or providing a particularly relevant customer reference, this assistance  can be invaluable to sales and reinforce that you’re all working toward the same goals.These meetings can also provide a big picture view of what deals are coming down the pike that might influence your roadmap priorities or strain your operations organization.

4. Create sales tools that make their life easier.

Sure, a product data sheet is handy, but what else would help your salespeople show off all your product has to offer and craft proposals that become no-brainers for prospects? Whether it’s ROI calculators, case studies, FAQs, videos, or pitch decks, it’s your job to make sure they’re armed with the tools they need to succeed.“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,” says The Clever PM.If you’re lucky enough to have a product marketing or sales support organization you might not have to actually build them all out yourself, but you should make sure the right tools are being created and they have the correct data and messaging.

5. Seek out their counsel…sometimes.

product should seek counsel from their sales team

Aside from pure input from the field, sales can provide valuable opinions and insights during the product development cycle. Having a salesperson (the right one) participate in structured product review and roadmapping meetings is a great “market check” for product management.An even more valuable area for sales input is when you’re figuring out how much to charge.“Ask for guidance from sales people on pricing structures that will win deals,” says Peter Buchanan of Ten Mile Square. “Sales people go belly to belly on pricing with customers daily. They know the structures, pricing levels, and payment terms that work best. And some of them just love modeling out the price.”

6. Always be educating.

As we know from Glengarry Glen Ross (and everyone fan of that movie), every salesperson should "Always Be Closing," and your job as a product manager is to Always Be Educating your sales team. Whether it’s webinars, lunch and learns, or in-depth demos, you need to be on the agenda at every sales gathering.

“Make product training less about transferring your knowledge and more about finding information,” says Steve Johnson of Under10 Consulting. “Make the agenda about the buyer’s journey and the sales funnel. Start with a definition of the markets and personas. Explain the compelling events that typically cause a client to initiate a project. That is, explain what a qualified prospect looks like. Once you’ve profiled the buyer, distribute a list of sales enablement tools, organized by step in the sales cycle, with links to where the content can be found on your sales portal. Show them how they can help themselves.”

If your company sells more than one product, your continuing education of the team is doubly important as your product may not be top of mind. Take every opportunity to release a FAQ, highlight a customer success, or hype a new feature so the team is excited and motivated to focus on pushing your product.

7. Keep in mind how your salespeople are getting paid.

Working in sales is unlike pretty much any other job. There are plenty of analogies that describe their peculiar world (such as “eat what you kill” and “coin-operated”), but the main thing to remember is that you’re getting paid no matter what while they make most of their money when they actually sell something.

Commission-based sales creates commission-based thinking, so you need to remember how they’re viewing the world. Anything that complicates the sales cycle, slows it down, or shrinks the size of the deal is a negative, while anything that helps them quickly snag a purchase order or increases the size of the purchase is a huge win for them.

It’s also important that you don’t start comparing paychecks (or doing the math in your head). A good salesperson is going to make way more than you, but a bad salesperson will make less... and likely be looking for a new job a lot sooner than you. They take the risk, they get the reward…no one gets into product management for the money!

8. Play favorites and assemble your own team of sales standouts.

In a perfect world, you would have the time to win over every salesperson in the company and provide them with the extra training and support they need. But there’s only so many hours in the day, so your best bet is to focus on a few influential salespeople that have taken an interest in your product and your assistance.

“These are the salespeople whom others respect and query for advice, and these influential salespeople can be great champions for your product for obvious reasons,” says Jeff Lash of How to Be a Good Product Manager. “If they develop a passion for your product and if you have a productive relationship with them, those positive benefits will be passed on to others. Additionally, they can serve as a great source of information for you, as they will pass on what they are hearing about from other salespeople, as well as from customers, competitors, and the market in general.”

Once you’ve selected your personal sales all-star team, you can use them to test things out with soft launches before rolling out new products and messaging to the entire rank and file.

As Steve Johnson fro Under10 Consulting says,“You can’t support a hundred salespeople but you can support a few. Go on sales calls, observe what works and what doesn’t, take notes on what the sales team and the clients are saying about the product and the problems it solves. Go for a meal after each call and chat with the sales people about what they’re seeing. Get it right, working with a small sales team, and when you’ve nailed it, you can roll it out to the entire sales team with sales tools and messaging that have been perfected.”

9. Be responsive.

Last, but certainly not least, if you want to maintain a good rapport with your sales team, you need to get back to them as quickly as possible. Unnecessary delays can squash a deal, whether it’s a potential client’s budget getting reallocated or a competitor swooping in with a sweeter offer.

“Respond to calls and emails from the sales force promptly. They will appreciate this,” says Eric Krock of Lifemate Solutions. It will maximize their ability to close business. It will encourage them to contact you with questions in the future instead of providing their own ‘best guess.’”

So go find a salesperson and conduct an impromptu win/loss review of their latest trip. Ask the VP of Sales if you can sit in on a pipeline review. Schedule a refresher webinar for the regional reps. It’s time to spend some quality time with your sales team.