Product Folk, Love Your Sales Buddies!

Product supporting Sales. Photo by Form on Unsplash

Disclaimer: this post pertains mostly to the B2B realm. B2C PM’s might not find their work life represented below.

Let’s start with some honesty:

If you’ve never cursed sales to the lowest circles of hell for polluting your backlog with random ad hoc one-off tasks, I’d like to welcome you to your first week of Product Management!

It’s such a common entry to the Product FAQ: “How do I prevent Sales from going rampant and promising everything and then some just to ink more deals?” — Almost every Product Manager in their career finds themselves struggling between pressure to think strategic, experiment, understand customers, prioritize… and just acting as a delivery manager for non-negotiable things already contractually promised to customers.

I get it, it’s the worst. It stabs right at the heart of your professional pride as a Product person, strips you of any semblance of autonomy and worst yet: leaves you scrambling in the tactical when you really should be strategic.

I’m here to provide two points of view: First, it’s not always that bad. Second, it doesn’t (always) have to be that way.

Both have a common thread: Sales is awesome and you can (and should) do a lot to make the relationship with them mutually beneficial. When in lock-step, Sales x Product = 📈💰💰💰

Living With Sales Debt

Photo by Ales Nesetril on Unsplash

We all know and love tech debt, right? It’s a useful tool for cutting appropriate corners to get in front of real customers faster. Used right, it can make all the difference in keeping your company learning, and your product evolving FAST. Obviously, used wrong, it’ll grind you to a halt and destroy morale.

Sales debt (or “contract debt”, “sell-forward” — a rose by any name etc.) is a very similar tool. Used wisely it’s your #1 guide towards product-market fit and a great growth accelerant. Used poorly, you basically make your organization into a service organization with no hope of any real product strategy or scalability beyond a few (hopefully) huge customers.

Think of it as a measure of product-market fit: a high volume of new sales debt effectively means that your product isn’t sufficient as-is. If sales is forced to sell-forward to close most deals, something is most likely off. Use this as a real metric to guide you towards product-market fit: if your sales debt is decreasing over time, you’re on your way there!

You should also learn to bucket sales debt into two categories: onboarding cost and actual custom work. Most B2B products, especially those focused on enterprise customers, will have some customization, integrations, configuration and setup work to be done for new customers. Preferably there should be a dedicated team of Sales Engineers / Solution Specialists handling this — and it should be done within well-defined guardrails.

Actual custom work is modifications or extensions to your core product that falls on the product development team’s plate. This is the stuff you need to be extra careful about.

If your plate is constantly filled with the latter, here are a few tips on coping with it:

  1. Engage deeper with Sales!
    Go on sales call ride-alongs. Make sure you can truly empathize with how hard it is to sell your product. Use this to learn the root causes of what is driving all those custom requests and get ahead of them.
  2. Keep tabs on sales engineering
    In B2B products, the people who often know the product best, are Sales Engineers — the people responsible for product demos, onboarding, configuration etc. If you’re ignoring these people as a Product Manager, don’t be surprised if you’re constantly blindsided by requests. The same can obviously be said about Customer Success.
  3. Quantify!
    You won’t gain respect as a Product Manager if you’re always moaning about how well you’d do your job if only it wasn’t for a constant influx of distractions — even if it were true. Make sure you do your due diligence by keeping tabs on how much of your team’s effort is going on custom work on an ongoing basis. Use that to project its impact on innovation, and calculate the opportunity cost. You’ll soon have a waterproof story on why investing in better sales debt management is critical.
  4. Prioritize, experiment and productize!
    Here’s where being a real FullHD Product Manager comes into play — sometimes prioritizing a short-term gain can be more beneficial than some lofty long-term goal. Especially if there’s a potential path for reuse. Your expertise is to identify those opportunities and generalize one-offs into reusable features that might benefit other customers, and become a real feature of your product. You don’t want to be just a delivery organization responding to ad hoc requests, but you also don’t want to lose the respect and trust of your sales organization by always saying no (or worse: failing to deliver on promises).

Fixing Sales Debt

“When routine bites hard…” — Photo by Ruth Enyedi on Unsplash

When you find yourself in a vicious cycle of accumulating sales debt, you need to do something.

As noted above, growing sales debt generally is an indicator that your product-market fit might not be as solid as you think. This can be true overall, or for specific customer segments.

Your job is to figure out what the driver is!

The key thing to understand here is this:

Sales is a hammer. It’s a blunt-force object. It is remarkably effective when wielded with precision, horribly destructive when swung around aimlessly.

I want to be clear here: this is with absolutely zero disrespect to Sales. I have nothing but enormous respect to their craft.

I’m merely using this analogy to help the Product folk out there understand why they keep running into friction with sales. It’s Product’s job to provide that precision and direction to sales and then let them hammer away! In absence of Product’s guidance and support, Sales will swing in every direction.

When Product does it’s job well, they provide Sales with the following to put in their briefcase.

  • USP (unique selling point) and value props
  • Clear definition of the target market
  • Clear guardrails of what the product can do and what customizations it can accommodate
  • Pricing bounds

Equally important is to provide the inverse of all of the above: what the product doesn’t do, who it doesn’t work for, and what shouldn’t be customized.

In absence of all of these, sales is forced to make things up on the spot.

Product people are inherently great at saying “no!”, but we forget that Sales is usually paid on commission. They eat what they kill. If you do nothing but shoot them down, they will work their way around those limitations. They need things in their briefcase to take to market, and need to feel confident that what they have is strong enough to sell.

This is your job to ensure.

A badly escalated Sales debt issue is really difficult to fix in the front-lines. This fix usually includes Product leaders working with Sales leaders. They need to be in lock-step with the Sales leader to make sure their orgs have their incentives aligned.

The only way to do this? Data. Sales is always looking for better guidance on where they can get the best return for their efforts. Highlight which segments to focus on, or what use-cases to push. If you can lead them to shorter cycle times or higher win-rates, I guarantee you they will follow gladly. Basically you’re giving them a roadmap to better returns.

Done strategically this can align with the direction the product is going. Salespeople are smart! They will take a slight hit all day long if you can prove it’s on the path to much greater gains. The downside? You have to deliver consistently! Again: They. Work. On. Commission. If you let them down, you hurt their ability to earn.

Seriously, if you take one thing away from this post, make it this: Sales is an amazing tool. It breaks my heart that Product and Sales are so often on a collision course due to conflicting incentives.

Please please please do yourself a huge favor: Put in the time and effort to build a bridge over that chasm. Meet them halfway. Meet them over halfway. Learn their pains, tap into their knowledge, and sometimes let pragmatism win the day.

Make a friend in Sales. You’ll be a much better PM for it!

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