On Sales and Customer Service as Foundations for Product Management

Ryan Dodds
Apr 1, 2015 · 6 min read

Most Product Managers look like this… computer science undergrad, Stanford MBA, stint as a developer at [name a big SV tech company]. I didn’t have any of those preconceived notions or advantages. This is the story of building a Product Manager’s toolset from an unlikely foundation: Sales and Customer Service (CS).

As the adage goes, we are products of our own environments. In product management, those with technical backgrounds are going to excel in technical matters, those with marketing backgrounds are going to excel in product marketing, and so on. What I’m proposing is that a product leader with a background in sales or customer service can bring incredible value to your team; remembering that the job of a Product Manager is to help your team (and company) ship the right product to your user (as defined by Josh Elman here).

In this post, I’ll discuss three skills learned and practiced in sales and customer support teams at software companies that prove critical in the daily life of a Product Manager. They’re critical because without them, you’ll maybe get around to shipping something that no one cares about. I’m drawing from my experience in sales, customer support and product at three startups and at one big tech company.

Note: The sales/customer service path are just two of many paths that you can leverage to break into product. These paths are far less common than the more traditional paths of developer, designer, management consultant turned PM. There is no ‘right’ path. There are only opportunities at companies that value certain backgrounds in their product leaders.

1. Understanding & 6 Questions to Ask in Sales

In business school you learn a good deal of pointless crap, but one thing you do learn is to appreciate the idea of gaining a deep understanding of a problem before jumping into a solution. Without understanding, you have only pointless action and reaction. With understanding, you know where to focus your action to get the results you want, and how to respond when the results differ.

This notion was cemented in my professional life during a conversation with my VP of sales at Desk.com when I was in inside sales. He called me up after listening in on a qualification call and laid it out for me, “Ryan, I want you to remember the following six points and use them every time you are qualifying a deal.” Salesforce is very good at teaching consultative selling. And it makes sense, how can I justly sell you a solution if I don’t fully understand what problem you are trying to solve?

I learned to have focused conversations with prospects based on these six points:

  1. Environment: How do you do your job today? What tools are you using? What’s the team composition? How do you communicate with your team?
  2. Competition: Who else are you looking at?
  3. Budget: Is there a budget? Where is it coming from?
  4. Compelling event: What’s really driving your interest? Is shit hitting the fan or are you just kicking the tires?
  5. Timeline: When do you realistically need a solution in place by? Why?
  6. Decision making: Who writes the check? Whats the process for making a decision like this?

Once I had gathered as much information as possible, I could then begin to formulate a sales strategy. This is also the point in time where you learn to say no (a must-have skill in product management). Many times our solution was not the right tool for the job, and it was ok to help the prospect see that.

In product management, this exercise is called a user interview, which is one of many tactics you can use to gain understanding. In a user interview, you’re sitting with a user or potential user (ideally in their environment) and you’re having them take you through their workflows. You’re listening, probing and questioning in order to learn as much as you can. You take that learning back and start to formulate a hypothesis on how you can make their lives better (I use Google Ventures’ quick and dirty user research guide to organize and conduct interviews). A Product Manager who has done the work up front to gain understanding can then begin to make informed product decisions.

2. Communication

Ben Horowitz addresses communication when he states in his post, Good Product Manager / Bad Product Manager,

Good product managers communicate crisply to engineering in
writing as well as verbally.

Communicating crisply is about being clear, concise and confident to your audience. Think about the last time you had a positive customer support or sales experience. Was the person super clear on the reason for the interaction? Didn’t that make your decision or next steps so much easier? Customer support reps know how important it is to clearly define what the user should do next because they want the issue resolved on first contact.

Being concise is about getting to the point, quickly, and giving enough context so the reader or listener understands what you are trying to tell them. The good sales person giving a demo and the good CS rep helping onboard a new user know that spending their time explaining all of the features and functions is not efficient or effective because they know the user has certain expectations of the product and has specific pain points that need solved — so they focus on those things. Similarly, a good Product Manager always communicates concise specifications and user stories containing all the information an engineer needs to build and nothing more.

The last element to crisp communication is being confident. This means that you are not just making stuff up and relying solely on your intuition and past experiences. It means having tough conversations with stakeholders. It means knowing your domain. It means connecting your decisions to the vision of the company. In short, confident communication makes your audience care, gets them motivated and influences them to take action.

Consider when a good sales person closes a deal, they do it with gravitas. They close it because they’ve done the work up front, they know it’s a good fit and they’ve communicated with the customer in a way that shows confidence in their product. Likewise, a good CS rep knows the product inside and out and can confidently articulate a solution to the user’s problem, which increases the chances for customer retention. Good sales and CS people understand how to use communication to get results.

3. Follow through or GSD (Getting Shit Done)

Understanding and communication are worthless if you can’t deliver. Consider the key success metrics for each domain: in sales you are judged on the revenue you generate, in customer support you are judged on the satisfaction of your customers, in product you are judged on the adoption and engagement of the products you deliver. In all of these cases, your focus is on obtaining a positive outcome. But how do successful people in these domains consistently arrive at that positive outcome?

First, they realize in order to get results they have to be organized. Whether it’s keeping their records and next steps up-to-date in their CRM or making sure their support ticketing system is clean and tickets assigned to them have been addressed, keeping their house in order allows successful people in these domains to be more productive than those who do not. Simple.

Second, in order to get results, good sales people, CS reps and PM’s know they need to prioritize. Take a strong sales person for example. Because it is unrealistic for her to spend quality sales time with every lead, she knows she needs to quickly qualify each lead so she can then prioritize her follow-up.

Lastly, these people win because they grind out results. Selling, supporting and building product is not easy. There are always obstacles in the way but the good ones figure out how, by any means possible, to overcome those obstacles.

Most product managers are generalists. They need to excel in a number of different areas. Turning PM from sales or customer support is not natural or easy. While you might have acquired the skills in this post as well as others, there are still plenty of soft and hard skills needed in product management. If you or anyone you know has taken a similar or unconventional path to product, please connect with me as I would love to learn more.

Thanks to Greg Meyer and Jordan Dodds

Ryan Dodds

Written by

Product Manager

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