Show Me the Money!

An hand handing a pack of dollar bills

Unless you are a very ‘green’ product manager or you only worked for pure B2C companies then you’ve surely been interacting with sales people during your career.

And if you haven’t had the chance so far – then certainly it’s just a matter of time.

 

As a product manager you are located at the ‘heart’ of the organization and have interfaces with all departments. Interacting with the sales department is no exception.

By its nature, this interaction is a two-way street. From their side – the sales people will reach out to you when:

  1. They are bringing to your attention feature requests on behalf of the customer/prospect
  2. They want to promote feature requests that will help them close more deals.
  3. They want to know the ETA of features, so they communicate those to customers/prospects.
  4. They have some questions about features, the roadmap or the product vision

 

In fact, most of the interaction with sales will probably be initiated by the sales people themselves, asking for one or more of the above. However, from time to time – it’s you who will initiate the interaction when you are:

  1. Conducting a discovery process, and want to get more information about specific requests that were raised in the past.
  2. Trying to better understand the challenges in closing a deal, or want to understand the overall sales dynamics of your business
  3. Attempting to improve the sales process by aligning it with the product strategy. For example, trying to focus on specific prospects, deal sizes or any other changes to the existing sales template.

In this post we’ll go over these types of interactions, but we’ll put our focus on aligning the sales with the overall strategy of your product, because… at the end of the day… this is where the main impact is.

 

When the sales wants something from you

Most likely, when sales people are reaching out to you, it’s because they want a specific feature to be implemented, or they want to know the current ETA of a delivery you promised them in the past.

If they want a specific feature to be implemented – then it needs to be addressed the same way any other feature request is landing on your desk:

  1. You need to ask yourself whether it’s aligned with the north star and the product strategy or whether there is other unique justification as for why this feature needs to be considered.
  2. If you believe that this feature needs to be worked on – the next question is ‘when’? Ideally, all features that weren’t part of the quarterly planning should be pushed to the next quarter. If it can’t wait for the next quarter (because you’ll lose a strategic customer, a great source of revenues or whatever) – then push it to one of the next sprints, and as far as you can. However, sometimes things are really urgent and you’ll have to break the sprint in the middle and shove it in. That must not become a habit though. If it does – something is not working in the process, or your organization lacks a great deal of discipline. You can read this post for more guidance if this is the norm.
  3. If it’s not urgent and you don’t have the time to seriously consider it – simply document it where you document all your future feature requests.
  4. Communicate back to the sales team how you’re going to handle this (“only next quarter”, “next sprint”, “I documented it but I’m not sure when we’ll be working on this”), and why.

 

If all they want is information (e.g. – ETAs, questions about the product or roadmap) – this is really a no brainer. Answer their questions in the most transparent manner that you can. Just be responsive.

Sometimes the sales person won’t accept your answer. Either they are unhappy with the ETA provided, the fact that you buried their feature or whatever. Try to reason with them and explain to them your priorities (ideally – north star and the product strategy) and how their request is misaligned with those. Your goal is to avoid any escalation. From my personal experience – when things are properly communicated, in a timely manner and in a respectable way – escalation can be avoided most of the time.

It’s all about communication at the end of the day. 

Having an agreed upon north star and product strategy will greatly assist you to counter irrelevant requests and even prevent them from coming up in the first place.

When you want something from sales

If you need something from sales, you need to understand two important things before (disclaimer: I’m over generalizing here, I know):

  1. The salespeople are trained to say ‘yes’. They don’t like objections or confrontations of any kind. It doesn’t mean they will necessarily do what they agreed to do though. Not because they aren’t nice or don’t respect you. Most of them simply don’t want to turn you down, like they don’t want to turn down a customer. For example: You want to join a few sales meetings or interview them as part of a discovery process? “Sure, let’s discuss it next week” – is a common reply you’ll probably get. The sales people I know don’t want product people in their meetings, and rather be focused on closing deals than wasting their time talking to PMs – and hence – they’ll be dodging without telling you an explicit ‘no’. Of course there are exceptions and I also know sales people who were eager to cooperate with me (or other product people). But for most of the time – you are an interruption.
  2. Salespeople act upon incentives. Do you want them to change something in the way they sell? Promote a new product? Chase specific types of customers? You need to make sure the incentives are aligned as well. Otherwise this is not going to happen. You see – most of the sales people I know are being compensated with a base salary + bonuses which are tied to the amount of deals closed. They have a quota and they need to meet it. If they make more than the quota – they will also make more money. When you ask them to change a playbook they are already familiar with – they must be incentivized to do so.

 

You might read the above and think I don’t like sales people or something in that spirit. That’s quite far from the truth, I assure you. In a sense, I actually admire sales people. I like their focus and their ability to tell a good story. I also learned to sympathize with their approach of doing business: “You want something from me? Fine. Just make sure it’s not going to hurt my compensation in any way”.

You see – you need to know the personas you’re working with and not only the personas of your users/customers. At the end of the day – in our scenario – you need sales to do something for you, so it’s part of your job to know how to motivate them to do what you want.

Here is a real life example, based on the experience of one of the PMs I’m working with (I will blur some facts for maintaining confidentiality):

The PM is telling me his story:

PM: “So I completed my research and my discovery process clearly indicated that we need to focus on a very specific segment of our customers, because our product is a great fit for them and it will result in a great ARR. I went to the sales team, gathered them all in one room and presented them with my research. They were highly impressed and complimented me when I’m done presenting. The head of sales then says to his team: “Ok guys, why don’t we give it a try, eh?”. The whole team nods in agreement. I went home happy. Problem is – days and then weeks have passed by – and nothing has changed… They kept chasing the exact same customers they chased before”.

He was quite frustrated.

I nodded in understanding. I totally got his frustration, but it was also very clear to me why he had failed. I told him:

Me: “Did your plan to change the customers’ profile they are targeting was tied to any change in their compensation or did you provide them with any ‘sales template’ for this type of customer that they can copy and apply?”

PM: “No… and no”

Me: “So the moment you left the room it was also the moment your presentation was forgotten.”

 

We then discussed what he should have done in order to get their buy-in and act on his new plan. You can probably guess by now the essence of what he needed to do, but let me break it down for you:

There are two main options here:

  1. [The hard approach] Do the sale yourself for a customer or two (ask the head of sales, or your boss – to get you into a sales meeting with prospects who fit your profile). Understand whether your thesis is correct. If it is – create a sales template for this type of customer so the sales team can copy and apply. It must not be harder than their current template.
  2. [The a-bit-easier approach] Convince the CEO and the head of sales (with or without the help of your boss) to change the compensation structure of the sales team, so they will get higher incentives for closing deals with this type of customers.

 

If you do none of the above – don’t expect any change. Again – unlike other departments, such as customer success or support, where a statement from the CEO, or even just a motivation speech from your side can make them alter their focus – the sales team requires explicit incentives to change the way they work. You need to either make it easier for them to close deals, or make them earn more money from each deal they close, based on the changes that you’re asking for. This is because it directly impacts their compensation and performance reviews (unlike customer success or support).

It has nothing to do with your persona or your capabilities – so never take it personally.

 

It might sound like too much work for you. Could be. Therefore, your first and most important question is how confident are you that the change you want will have a positive meaningful impact?

If you don’t predict a meaningful impact – I’d recommend focusing on other things, because changing the way sales work is not an easy route (as you’ve seen). However, if you do believe the sales team requires some alignment with the overall strategy, and this alignment will be meaningful for your company and/or product – then start getting buy-ins from your boss and the CEO, and following that – apply one of the approaches described above.

Nobody said product management work is easy 🙂

 

So… that’s it for today!

If you found this post/series useful – feel free to ‘like’ it. If you think others can benefit from it – feel free to share it with them.

 

Thank you, and until next time 🙂

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