Listen to Sales, Mostly

always_be_closingJointly blogged by Laurent Gharda & Wayne Greene

As good product managers and product marketing managers, we are told that one of the constituencies that we need to listen to are the sales teams. Those product sales specialists and system engineers that take leads, qualify them, align value proposition with customer pain points, enable a proof of concept or similar trial, identify key decision makers and close the deals. We back in HQ may at time like to sit back and watch the numbers in Salesforce and monitor the success of these sales teams. Yeah right!

Nothing Important Happens in the Office

We know we need to get out of the sprint reviews and post mortems and talk to the customers. Many of us have personal MBO metrics around customer visits and we are always trying to figure out better ways to share customer interviews, data and details of all of those surveys, users groups and advisory councils. All great material and much needed, tons of great fodder for the backlog and managing executive expectations and program management.

Let’s not forget about those sales teams

We all have great anecdotes, war stories and lists of our best product sales champions. Of course over the years we have heard from many of sales teams their ideas for features, functions, new products, new bundles, new SKUs and so on. Let’s explore what they have to offer ….

Before we can do that, what to call “them” in Sales? In our simplistic view of universe, there are at a minimum of 2 active players in a customer-facing, boots on the ground sales team:

– The player responsible for a quota/objective and who is responsible for bringing in the purchase order at the end of the day (or the quarter). We’ll call that role simply “Sales Rep” but have seen titles that include sales representative, account manager, director of sales, regional sales manager/director, customer advocate, business development rep/manager/director, and the list goes on, depending on the size of the company, the maturity of the product or the alignment of the stars. Again, we’ll call these folks “sales rep” here. No disrespect, just normalization: it’s one of the toughest jobs in the company, often the least respected, with ups and downs few others experience, but boy, those ups are good!

– And the technical person who knows, installs, demos and POCs the products, builds a technical credibility relationship with the potential customer implementers, but who also is presentable, flexible, friendly, cooperative and can be left alone with customers without an escort (so not some of your caricature smart-but-grumpy development engineer types trying the field gig “to learn the business side”). I’ll call this role “SE”, for Sales Engineer, with other titles witnessed to include systems engineer, field engineer, pre-sales engineer, technical account manager and such (not to be confused with support engineer or software engineer!)

– Of course there may be a good many others folks (that we won’t talk about in this post) who contribute toward closing deals in ways from knowing the bowels of the product inside and out, or knowing the customers’ current solution that is to be displaced or integrated with; who coordinate multiple product lines within your company or who manage sales activities across multiple customer business units/geographies; who manage product lines, products features and product futures (remind you of anyone?), and the occasional leaches who simply show up at the 11th hour in the hopes of getting a cut of the shared bonus due to a recent tweak in the commission plan that promotes “cross-product enthalpic synergy” or some other concept a marketing or sales big wig learned about in a week-long Hawaiian sales leadership retreat at $10K a pop (we’ve seen this!)

Is it when, or is it how to listen to Sales? “How” will direct “when”!

A Product Manager’s bag of tricks must include a “Sales Filter”. This filter guides the PM to, well, filter in, filter out, embrace or even take over ideas presented by Sales, after quickly considering who-what-where:

– Who? Sales Rep longevity with the company, maturity in the profession, length of the exposure to the current product, technical depth, listening skill set, industry knowledge, track record with the product, your personal interactions with him/her, etc.

– What? Product maturity stage, market acceptance/success, product category, implementation form factor, reputation within user communities & in the industry, etc.

– Where? Company: F500, startup, startup within a large company, one trick pony, highly diversified and such…

Throughout the PM’s career, the generalized Sales Filter becomes honed, tuned and refined to a point where the challenge is no longer when and when not to listen to Sales, but to always give the benefit of the doubt to Sales and keep listening just for a little bit longer. If nothing else, this further validates/refines the filter, and at times, your filter will let you down and you see the unexpected.

Example 1

You’re the PM in a Fortune 500 company’s established system peripheral business unit and are coming out with a new remote device management product line, 6 months from Beta. The Sales Rep/Evangelist just wrapped up a few NDA presentations with current BU customers and prospective beta users, and reports “They loved the new product!”

After hearing the news, you think: “of course they loved it: I spec’d the product and prepared the presentation.” But then you put on your filter and consider the facts…

  • Where: our F500 company is in an established BU. We have pretty good new product decision processes in place, and this product went through all the motions. So we’re good so far.
  • What: it’s a new product, so there is bound to be a learning curve, but you personally spent a zillion hours on the product plan, talked with prospective customers, etc. So everything should be OK…
  • Who: the Sales Rep/evangelist knows the BU’s other products well, and is as likeable as can be, oozes enthusiasm and positivity, and is known to own a room during a presentation. So a yellow flag goes up… Did the SR hear only the positive comments and perhaps spent too much time talking and not asking/listening? Does the SR fully understand the product and not rely too much on the presentation materials?

PM’s next steps: after thinking “I should have been there”, you review the presentation in a critical fashion. Was the PowerPoint intended to sell an audience (as in the BU’s Go committee or to pump up the sales team) or was it intended to help an audience self-qualify? Is the product really that good? Does the presentation need to be revised?

You ponder, revise the presentation for the audience and present it via WebEx to the customers…

Results: the customer feedback was overall quite positive, but several interpreted that a few critical Phase 2 features would be in Phase 1 GA product. You now need to qualify the cost/benefit of the Phase 2 features: potential revenue deferment or lost revenue opportunity, engineering trade-offs to park some Phase 1 features for later or slip the release date. You discuss the issues at the next product team meeting (after running it by engineering management first to get a preliminary lay of the land if not consensus).

So you listened to Sales, but applied your filter to dismiss Sales’ feedback only to uncover a feature set deficiency that would have had negative repercussions after product launch. Well done!

Example 2

You’re the PM in a VC-funded startup focusing on IoT device monitoring and management. The industry is new, standards few and expectations high. Your product, now in Beta, targets IoT device manufacturers and possibly service providers. The Sales Rep has startup experience and has successfully helped a couple of other new companies establish themselves with initial customers.

The Sales Rep simply can’t close one of the first deals in what should be the sweet spot for the product, citing a lack of no customer references, unproven product and too many unknowns around an otherwise good value proposition. PM is asked to help and puts on the filter:

  • Where: the company is new, lacks processes and everyone involved believes in the solution. Still, no customers in a new field with a new product and new company raises flags. Can’t blame the Sales Rep for everything!
  • What: the product was spec’d by experts in remote device management configured in “secure” private networks, and most functionality (monitor, configure, update) is well understood.
  • Who: the Sales Rep seems to know his stuff, is used to dealing with new products from new companies and is technical enough. You listened to Sales and realized there is a real issue somewhere…

You decide end up having a lengthy conference call with the PM of the prospective customer (their PM is the decision maker considering adding a monitoring service to their product line). After knocking off objections one by one, what was left and was never presented to the Sales Rep was a concern about remote device security and IoT device-initiated attacks to the backend. Your product’s security emphasis was on protecting the remote device, not on protecting the back end.

The prospect had actually identified a possibly severe threat profile that the neither Product Management nor Engineering had not considered.

Results: you agree the issue is real and presents it to the product/project team. Engineering takes ownership of analysis and feasibility assessment. CEO gets involved and demands a game plan within 5 days to set expectations on product delivery with the VCs. No one is very happy, but all agree it’s better to know now (from a customer under NDA) then after a public GA. The Sales Rep gets a pat on the back and is told to go make the numbers elsewhere quickly.

You listened to Sales and identified the root cause of an issue no one had considered. Bravo!


When Not to Listen to Sales (or listen enough to dismiss with cause!)

  • When a rookie Sales Rep begs for you to be on a call in 30 minutes for the one-and-only chance to help close a deal (here’s instead an opportunity to coach the Sales Rep about how to get things done, etc.)
  • When the Sales Rep calls you up and sets up a call, but can’t be bothered to attend the call with the customer on the issue.
  • When the Sales Rep is known to routinely cry wolf and uses techno-babble to make you think there’s something there (again, an opportunity for a senior PM to do some coaching one on one…)

When to Listen to Sales

  • When they mention a customer need more than 3 times, even more so when there is not a specific deal that needs it to close tomorrow at 5PM, and when more than one Sales team brings up the same issue
  • When they can put you on the phone with a customer needing a feature and the individual is a manager with some level of knowledge and decision-making authority
  • When your Sales Engineer talks about the third deal he has lost during POCs this month

And whenever and wherever you listen to Sales, always remember to bring your sales filter with you!

If you haven’t read the other blog by Laurent and Wayne (who are probably eating at a new foodie restaurant working on the next blog), check out our perspective on when and how to listen to your board of directors.

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