Relationship Goals: How to Resolve the Tension Between Product Management and Sales

BY Liz Love ON SEPTEMBER 20, 2018

Product managers have a unique view on what’s happening across the business, provided the relationships are working well. They work at the intersection of the User Experience, Business, and Technical teams, and have the opportunity to tap into the collective knowledge of these teams, in addition to their own interactions with the market.

The product management venn diagram
Source: Martin Eriksson, Mind the Product

Being in this unique part of the organisation is one of the main reasons I’ve had a decade-long, fulfilling, and successful career as a product manager. By nature, I’m a pretty curious (OK, nosy) person, so gaining insights into the goings-on of different areas of the business, from the C-suite to the front line, has always fitted my personality perfectly. Added to that, I’ve been able to talk directly to customers, even meeting up with them face-to-face, either in their “real-life” environment or during user conferences at some very glamorous locations. I’ve been constantly surprised at what I don’t know, and have always loved the way that product management has allowed me to keep learning.

This curiosity has led me out of product management and into my first B2B sales position with ProdPad, where I’ve been tasked with building a repeatable, scalable, and successful sales process, and ultimately a larger sales team. Moving in this direction has given me a new outlook on how sales has the potential to help with product success (which, let’s face it, is success for the sales team, too). It has also given me insight into how the relationship between sales and product can be a tense one, and where those tensions are born.

I’ve certainly experienced tense relationships with sales. I remember, for example, a sales team telling me repeatedly about the new module they were being asked for, but it didn’t fit with our strategy so we didn’t plan to deliver it. In the end, the sales team sold it anyway and I was forced into changing the roadmap as a result, putting our strategy at risk. I’ve experienced issues like this throughout my product management career.

Courtesy of the Cranky Product Manager – The brain of a salesperson. Is this how you see your sales team?

Salespeople are Product Managers too

Of course it’s an exaggeration to say that salespeople are product managers, but the best salespeople I’ve ever met are the ones who spend time understanding their customers, their problems, and the things that keep them up at night. They can link this knowledge with the benefits offered by their products and communicate how their product solves customer/user problems, so that the product is selling itself.

Relationship building is clearly key too – there has to be an element of trust and empathy in the sales relationship in order to extract the truth about problems. Doesn’t that sound like a product manager to you? For the sales team, the product management skills of listening and understanding problems are important. Where product/market fit is good, the salesperson can empathise with their customer as they’ve probably heard the same problems multiple times. Highlighting the way their product solves problems is the best way to close a sale, but it requires the salesperson to understand the problem in the first place – which is where listening skills are paramount.

Tension between sales and product often comes where the customer expresses a need which can’t be solved by the product in its current form. (We’ve written about this in our blog Sales Teams Close More Deals When You Give Them The Product Roadmap.) If they understand the direction of your product, then sales teams will be better equipped to overcome objections associated with missing features, and can make their conversations more constructive. This can be achieved in a few different ways – maybe you can support your sales team on their more challenging calls, or even give them a copy of your public-facing roadmap.

Salespeople are Close to the Market too

This one might be obvious, but are you confident you know as much about your customers and potential customers as your sales team does? How often do you speak to the market? Are you hearing about customer problems as often as the sales team?

It’s all-too easy to discount feedback from the sales team, and to think you know more than they do. It’s true that you could have better visibility of the backlog and roadmap, but if they are overcoming objections from potential customers on a regular basis, they could have insights that you’re not lucky enough to have.

Tapping into this resource could help you to focus on building the right things – and your sales team will thank you for the ability to sell the right things. It’s unlikely they’ll share their commission cheque with you though!

Salespeople are Users too

Selling a product is a use case in its own right. Those who demonstrate your product – sales engineer, pre-sales consultant, or sales executive – do so based on real-life scenarios. They look to show off your product’s features in order to gain insights about the features that get the most positive responses, and in doing so, they will find the places where problems lie around user experience, and even those pesky bugs that we all hate so much.

The chances are that they hit the same problems repeatedly, and they may even have mentioned them to you. It’s annoying for both of you – sales want the problems to be fixed, and product needs the information required to replicate the problem. This can lead to tension – and then we hear phrases like “sales are complaining again, but they just don’t take the time to help me fix it”, and “product just don’t take my problems seriously, I’ve stopped telling them about bugs”.

It takes effort from both sides to make life easier. Sales do need to take the time to make a decent bug report, but they won’t necessarily be as comfortable with your bug tracking software as you are. They are also likely to be as frustrated as an end user – they have a job to do, and this problem is preventing them from doing it well. Would you expect a customer to go into GitHub, Jira, or Trello to create a ticket? Probably not – so maybe sales should report bugs like a user does, through your helpdesk, where they can enter in the details and engage in a dialogue with support. The advantage of this approach is that it’s easy to track (unlike an email or Slack discussion), it results in a ticket, and can be managed asynchronously when each person involved has time to devote to it.

In the ProdPad team, we have a standard bug reporting template that reminds me of everything I need to give the support team for bug reports. It certainly makes my life easier, and I appreciate that the support team took the time to create it for me. For issues that aren’t easy to recreate, we also have a quick hashtag in our support Slack channel that creates a ticket based on the information I provide. It means I can quickly report a problem in between customer calls, and the support team can investigate on my behalf (asking me for information when needed). It makes my life much easier, and gives them what they need to fix any problems that I find as I work around the product.

One other thought! Depending on the product, sales might actually use it for their own purposes – it may be you provide a B2B tool for sales, or one that the sales team find useful for managing their processes. If you’re eating your own dogfood, your sales team may give you great insights into how it could be even better and help you to knock the socks off the competition. Don’t discount feedback from your sales team about your product just because it doesn’t have customer backing – it might just be the killer feature you’re looking for.

How to Make the Most of Your Relationship with Sales

Make it easy for your sales team to give you their feedback. They often don’t have time to fill in long, detailed feedback reports. Give them an email address where they can forward customer emails or send you their own thoughts. Maybe arrange to meet with them when they have some time to review their recent customer interactions – they might even buy the drinks! Giving sales the space they need to help you will mean that they’re more likely to share their knowledge with you, at which point everyone’s a winner!

Involve sales in the product discovery process. Your sales team knows that an engaged customer is a happy customer, as they have an emotional investment in the product and the company. Having you involved in sales calls to provide expert advice, or even helping customers to be involved in beta programs and user testing, brings customers into the fold and makes them feel special – and it all brings them closer to that all-important purchasing decision. And who knows what you’ll learn along the way!

Learn to identify the difference between one-off feedback and a trend. If you hear a salesperson speak passionately about something, it’s probably worth listening to them. They may just be telling you what they heard today/yesterday – at which point, politely make a note of it (or ideally, put it in your feedback backlog) and let them know that it’s valuable to hear it. But delve a bit deeper – have they heard it before? If so, from whom? How many times? Did they see a trend in who they heard it from?

Your sales team might just have helped you out by identifying a pervasive market problem that justifies some more discovery work – and you have the opportunity to validate it by checking with your market. Maybe the problem they’ve identified applies a particular market segment which justifies a change in your product positioning. It’s very easy to discount feedback from sales as the latest buzzword, but they could be giving you the key to a big success.

Product Management is a Team Effort

As our CEO Janna Bastow often says, product managers don’t have all the answers, but they do ask the right questions. Like everyone else in the team, sales needs to have a voice when answering those questions. It’s a two-way street – sales need to speak up and share what they learn, but they also need to be heard. As a product manager, can you help oil the wheels of that process by providing the tools, processes and time to make the relationship even better? A little investment now could reap rewards in the long term, increasing the likelihood of product, company and your own success. Easy, right?

About

Liz Love

Liz Love is Director of Sales and Professional Services at ProdPad. Having worked in software development since 2001, including 10 years experience in product management, Liz knows the day-to-day struggles of product managers all too well. She's passionate about helping others to be successful in product management, whether that’s process improvement, mentoring or helping with best practices.

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