Products Need Sales

January 2017

Sales kick offs and company offsites around the world are starting to eagerly espouse the new targets for 2017, the new strategies to beat everyone and the product lineup to make it all possible. It’s a show, and — as a product leader — I love it. In the enterprise world, it is hugely satisfying to stand on stage and receive loud, positive feedback from a sea of usually sceptical and frustrated sales people about the products you live and breathe all year.

Universal Truths

There are, however, two universal truths that need our constant attention.

  1. The relationship between product teams and sales teams does not start and end in a single presentation at an annual sales kick off.
  2. We are all motivated by our needs to be competent, have autonomy and feel related. When it comes to enterprise SaaS products: sales teams and sales people are no different.

This is a unique challenge for product people in enterprise products. Training, methods and tools for product managers and UX designers tends to focus on the consumer side of the industry where the user is usually the buyer. If you keep your user happy, your sales normally head in the right direction.

Not so in the enterprise world.

Investing in the Relationship

What should an enterprise product manager do to build a strong relationship with a sales team? If there is any doubt why you need to, consider these symptoms of a poor relationship. Been here before?

  • You only hear about a commitment made by the sales person for a new (as yet unknown) feature when your finance manager asks you for a price clarification on the signed order form.
  • You get told how bad your product is after each important sales call and we might as well give up UNLESS we can build all FIVE missing features EVERYONE else has, NOW.
  • There’s a mass protest and exodus from the room when you announce a minor change to your roadmap.
  • Two months of financial modelling gets trashed when your new price list gets folded up and used to prop open the office door.

Let’s focus on what I believe builds a positive product-sales working relationship in enterprise SaaS.

Step 1: Understand the sales methodology

By understanding the framework and the methods of the sales team, the product team can build a more accurate long term market forecast for the product portfolio. This will help drive the roadmap, product-market fit, investments and resourcing.

Homework. Take time to understand how each industry procures and buys enterprise products, how long the sales cycles are, how often pilots or proof of concepts are required, what regulations need to be met. You will get important insight on needed improvements to your feature set, UX or design.

Pipelines. At a high level, understand how a sales pipeline works and how a sales person uses it to meet quota each quarter. This will help you to plug into sales reporting and the great feedback you get from win/loss reports.

Solutions. Scrutinize how a sales person is meant to go about building need, urgency and budget with a prospect. Each sales methodology (like SPIN, Challenger Sale, etc) connects the prospect’s pain to a solution: a solution using your products. Knowing how the sales person thinks this through will improve how you position your features and manage your pricing.

Step 2: Listen to feedback

You cannot afford to ignore that each sales person has a unique, informed view of your products from talking to the market everyday. A sales team is also more likely to trust your product roadmap and stay on message if they understand how their feedback is processed and prioritized. On an individual level, a visible and helpful product manager builds trust when a sales person is battling a big account or tough competition.

Time. Spend time with a sales person. Tag along to sales meetings when you can. Not only is the meeting with the prospect filled with insight, but the ride home is a great opportunity to get some frank, valuable dialogue going with the sales person.

Deals. Get involved with important proposals and RFPs. They are great for competitive intel. Also, you get to ensure your product is not over/ under sold and the sales person will appreciate the team effort. Sometimes you can spot a potential bear trap that could tragically derail your roadmap when the deal closes.

Meetings. Hold regular two-way sessions for each sales team so that you can share product progress and they can share ideas, challenges, frustrations. If you work for a global business, there’s no perfect time of the day when everyone can make it. By running these meetings monthly, no-one in the sales team will be left out in the cold for longer than a quarter.

Step 3: Hire product managers that can sell

In my experience, very technical product managers can lack the communication experience to work effectively with sales and that can lead to accusations of being inaccessible. The success of the product manager and the sales person are as interlinked as that between product manager and engineer.

(This is a reality of enterprise SaaS. A product manager who can’t sell will struggle to inspire a sales team. A product manager who doesn’t ‘get it’ plans big meetings and releases two days before the end of a Quarter.)

Interview. Obviously, you want to test their sales abilities in the interview.

Practice. Once in the job, regularly have your product managers answer difficult product questions, and then get them to socialize/ publish the ideal answers to help the whole team. It’s great sales practice.

Accountable. Get the product manager to be accountable for the quality of the product marketing and sales collateral for his/ her products. If you have a dedicated product marketing team, make sure there is close co-operation between product management and product marketing so that features, user stories and personae all map consistently to brand marketing, sales collateral and sales training.

These three ‘steps’ are product team competences: things you as a team can build up over time. They are inward looking.

What about those areas that are more outward looking? Things you can work with the sales team on?

Helping Sales People Do Great Things, Every Quarter

The start of a year is always a great reminder that everyone wants to wake up and feel intrinsically motivated to excel at what they do. Enterprise sales is a tough job and managing one’s energy, positivity and motivation throughout the year is critical to success.

Here are some ideas to help you rethink how product teams can contribute to that energy, positivity and motivation in sales. I’ve borrowed a little psychology here (see ‘Self Determination Theory’).

Plot twist: it’s not just better sales commissions.

Feed a Salesperson’s Competence

Onboarding. Products that sales people find hard to sell, don’t sell. As a product team, be active and visible in measuring how quickly new sales people are onboarded and productive, by product.

Collateral. Invest as much time as you can to get your product collateral and product training in one place. Simply designed. Easy to follow.

Certification. Work with your sales management to put in place a few levels of product certification, using some basic game mechanics: (a) make the certification challenging, it will be taken seriously and seen as more valuable, and (b) make attaining each level of product mastery meaningful in your organisation and something to be celebrated.

Enablement. When you plan a major release, ensure you spend as much time thinking about your sales team as you do your users. It’s a sin to release something without your sales team trained and ready to sell from Day 1.

(Remember, with any sales training for a new release, always prepare for the 4 standard questions: (1) “when is it available?” (2) “what’s the impact on price?” (3) “how does it help me sell to [x]?”, and…every enterprise product manager’s favourite…(4) “if it can’t do [that], is [that] on the roadmap?”)

Feed a Salesperson’s Autonomy

Adaptable. I find that — generally speaking — a sales person hates being boxed into a cast iron script. The sweet spot between over-dependency on the product team and renegade is ‘situational fluency’. Here, roughly defined as the skill of the sales person to employ tried and tested chunks of product collateral in a manner and order that best meets the need of that sales situation. So modularize and arrange your sales collateral and sales training to recognize that each prospect will need something different and the sales person is the best person to personalize it.

Questions. Every time a sales person has to refer to a product person to answer a product question, a small motivational switch gets flicked off. Centralize the questions and track how often questions are being raised to the product team; see if you can reduce both the volume over time, as well as the same questions repeatedly coming up.

Boundaries. Set clear boundaries on roadmaps and upcoming features so that the sales person knows what they can talk about to prospects with confidence.

Roadmaps. Keep your roadmap short and your vision vivid. Sales people will usually not complain about the lack of detail in what you are planning to build in a year’s time if the prospect buys into the product vision (passionately and expertly delivered by the sales person!).

Feed a Salesperson’s Relatedness

Expertise. For me, ‘relatedness’ is about being connected to both the team and the objective. When it comes to the sales team, I love to know who is an expert in a particular industry, company or domain. This knowledge should be shared across the product team so that product managers can be quick to pull in experts when researching, ideating or making decisions. I’ve rarely seen a sales person turn down an opportunity to get involved if they think their opinion is highly valued.

Teamwork. The same is true for high performers. Product managers are uniquely placed to match high performing sales people with smart, eager engineers on sales ‘ride-alongs’. We work in tech companies and sell technical products; a sales person bringing an engineer to a sales meeting builds trust by exposing the prospect to more of the organisation and the culture. The engineer gets a boost of enthusiasm and respect to see real-world challenges first hand. The sales person gets to observe and learn things about the prospect that wasn’t visible before. Everyone becomes more connected to the objective and each other.

I hope I’ve highlighted for you some new ideas to help build relationships between product and sales, but now with a clearer understanding that product has a big role to play in motivating sales people. Competence. Autonomy. Relatedness.

Keep these 3 things in focus and I wish you huge success for your products in 2017. Happy New Year! Happy Sales Kick-Off!