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We need feature X!”, “We have lost an important deal to the competition, because we do not offer Y!
Every product manager, who is working with a sales team will know these or similar sentences.

Product-led vs. Sales-led

No product manager likes these comments and many in the product management / agile community are talking about product-led and that for a product-led company there is no need for a sales team.

For me this is a big pile of bullshit. Products don’t sell itself, especially in a high ticket B2B context – see this excellent post on product-led vs. sales-lead on the close.io blog.

But even within a B2C context there is most-likely no sales team, but a partnership team. This team is selling the product to potential partners, even though it might only be at a later stage.

Therefore it’s paramount to have a good working relationship with your sales team. So let’s talk about the problems and find solutions to work effectively with these very important stakeholders.

Solutions vs. problems

So there will always be “sales” colleagues and they hear stuff from their prospects. Missing features will always be a topic with each sales rep.

This is normal. Humans are wired to think in solutions. You’re guilty of it and I’m definitely guilty of it myself. The same goes for your colleagues and their prospects at the other end of the line.
That’s what’s being meant with the famous quote:

“If I would have ask my customers what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”

(attributed to) Henry Ford

Therefore if you just put anything into your backlog you maybe should start to breed horses instead.

It’s your job as a product team to understand the problem behind the proposed feature. Then, and only then, try to deliver the best solution that matches your product and company vision.

“But Sales wouldn’t let me talk to customers”

It’s understandable. Most sales reps get paid by bringing in a customer. You wouldn’t want someone else to mess up a deal for you, when it means a lower salary.

Start to collaborate

Ask your sales team if you can listen in on a couple of sales calls, or join in on a visit to a customer. This brings three benefits.

  1. You will get a feel for the job of your sales colleague. You will realize how hard this is. Sales get rejected day in and day out.
  2. You learn how your product is being sold. This can lead to many insights into how users are using your product or why they have certain expectations.
  3. You hear first hand, when a prospect requests a feature. Which might illuminate the context.

Sales people will become great allies, if you go in with a humble attitude. You are there to learn. It’s a great opportunity for you to talk directly with them about a feature request they have heard, ideas that they have and ask questions about the sales process.

The next step up from just listening is to try to get into the conversation. If you have built a bit of trust you might be able to ask clarifying questions, when a feature request pops up.

If you’re not there yet, that your colleagues trust you enough to lend you the phone, start by developing a set of questions that your colleagues could ask the next time.
The best sales reps are very good at listening. If you can give them a hand with a couple of questions to get more detail out of a prospect, they will appreciate the collaboration.

Talk to the dead

One great nugget you can get from sales are lost deals. From a sales perspective the interest in these contacts are very low, because they have deliberately decided to not work with your company.

That’s the perfect time for you as a product manager to ask questions. Because you’re not longer talking about potential situations, but rather about actual concrete buying decision factors.

Bob Moesta, one of the pioneers of the Jobs-To-Be-Done framework, also promotes to talk to buyers who have made a decision.

“The greatest single step you can make is to actually talk to somebody who recently purchased you, and talk to somebody who recently quit you.”

Bob Moesta – on the Intercom Podcast

Of course not every prior prospect wants to talk to you, so the conversion rate might be quite low. But they might be more inclined to talk to a product manager than to a sales rep.

No One-offs

You will be surprised how much information you will get out of a single call or a couple of sales calls. But as tempting as it might be to go back into solution mode I would advise you to make this a deliberate practise.

What I would recommend is, in addition to the mentioned steps above, to coordinate a regular exchange between you and the sales team to have a retrospective about lost deals.

The sales team should have an easy way to list the lost deals, the reason and the ticket size. Even though the reason will never be the one and only factor for the final decision, it will reveal trends. These trends can then be used to identify areas for improvement or where more discovery might be needed.

Use your sales team

Most of the time your sales people are the best source of competitor information. Because buyers, also in a B2B context, are way more informed than ever before. They will easily bring up competitors within a sales call. Use the crowd to get more details about your competitors, which might not even be on your radar.

It’s no one-way street

The collaboration with the sales team is not only there to serve you with your day-to-day work. The information you gather during interviews are as important for the sales team as they are for you.

Sometimes your product is already capable of fitting to a customer’s problem. But the sales team simply does not know that. Therefore it’s also part of your job to help the sales team to sell your product in the best way possible. But for this you need to know the questions and you’re the one with the answers. Teach them to your sales team.

Get to work

I hope you realize how great a partnership with your sales colleagues could be and that it’s easy to get started. So go out and make friends with your sales team!

If you have tried any of these tips, please let me know what you’ve learned.
Also, if you have other positive or negative examples on how to collaborate with your sales colleagues, please let me know in the comments or write me a mail@larshassler.com.

Next we’ll take a look into the greatest weapon against a HiPPO.