Why Our Sales Team Impacts Product Just as Much as Engineering Does
One of the most rewarding aspects of working in sales at a startup is that you get to build a new product entirely from scratch. Even if you can’t write a line of code, you play a pivotal role in shaping the product roadmap, because you’re the collector and mouthpiece for your customers’ feedback and requests.
Can you carry a quota and steer the product roadmap at the same time?
Many sales reps prefer to stick to the responsibilities that are typical of a sales job in a larger company, where product and sales are often split by both physical and procedural barriers. A rep may not even know the name of a single engineer. But at a startup, building the best product is equally, if not more, dependent on input from the sales team as it is on the actual code being written.
When we started DataFox, we didn’t know what the “right” process was for collecting feedback and collating the most important takeaways for the product/eng team. Driven mainly by our founders’ inclinations to take notes on everything and ensure sharing of knowledge with the rest of the team, we developed a process that has become critical in building our product.
This process ensures we’re building features that cater to our customers’ deepest needs, and lives and dies by the communication flow from our “front lines” to our engineering team.
Step 1: the “Customer Feedback Google Doc”
Our sales team talks to customers all day long. Notes are taken in Salesforce. Before moving on to the next meeting or call, however, they summarize the key requests and feedback from the customer or prospect and paste that into a Google Doc that’s shared with our whole company. This includes both positive and negative feedback. Where it’s a feature request, the sales rep probes deeply; “what’s painful about the way you do things now?” “Is this the most important pain point you wish we would solve?” “How much time does this problem cost you?”
We end up with a long list of entries, like this:
Jake Henley, Sales Ops at Oracle: — Loving our emailed milestone alerts about the companies he’s tracking, saves him at least an hour a day. — When he creates a list of prospects for his team, he wants to be able to assign them to team members from within DataFox; that would save the hassle of exporting to Excel and doing it there. With emailed spreadsheets version control is a problem — as a result he probably loses 1–5 deals a month that he shouldn’t.
Our sales team tries to get at the customer’s problem, not his requested solution. As Henry Ford famously said:
“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
By giving too much voice to customers’ desired solutions, we’re limiting the creativity of our engineering team in coming up with the best solution. So we focus on customers’ problems, not their solutions.
Step 2: the Monday morning “Customer Feedback Meeting”
We only have one weekly all-hands meeting, and it’s the Monday morning “Customer Feedback Meeting.” For 30–45 minutes, our whole company (currently ~15 people) crowds into a conference room. Together we go through all the feedback captured in the Customer Feedback Google Doc since last week. The sales team and anyone else who contributed to the doc walks through the highlights of each of their submissions.
It’s important to keep the meeting moving along, so the purpose of the meeting is solely to drink up and understand the feedback received. We don’t let ourselves dwell on items or devolve into product design discussions. It’s a slippery slope!
Our Head of Product, Mike, tallies each piece of feedback in a spreadsheet, so we that we have a sense of how often things have come up.
One of our engineers submits bugs for anything that is broken and should be dealt with quickly.
Our customer success team uses their DataFox account to tag the company that requested a feature and adds notes about the customer’s specific reason for the request so that we can follow up with the right context when the feature gets built.
We move like a Swat team through line after line of customer feedback. It’s absolutely exhilarating to hear what customers love and what’s still painful and suboptimal in their workflow.
Periodically, we’ll end the meeting by looking at Mike’s tally, to refresh our view of the top 5–10 requested items in recent weeks.
Step 3: Quarterly priorities
With our Customer Feedback doc and running tally, it’s become very easy to make sure we’re always working on the most important features. In quarterly roadmap planning sessions we have a lot of ammo to refresh our memory of customers’ pain-points, needs, and requests, and we can use the tally to help prioritize features.
Benefits to engineering
Our customer feedback cycle is helpful to our engineering team for a number of reasons.
First of all, with engineers drinking up customer feedback every single week, they have an excellent understanding of how are product is being used. This gives our engineers a lot of autonomy — they don’t need to be served pixel-perfect mockups, because they have the understanding to make important decisions on the fly.
Second, engineers feel empowered to bite off bugs and enhancements as they come up, without needing them to be assigned. Often an engineer will feel a customer’s pain and immediately after the meeting fix an important issue.
Finally, in our bi-weekly sprints and quarterly roadmap planning sessions, we all have an informed sense of what we should prioritize. Everyone has a true feeling of ownership in these meetings. We’re building this very complex product together.
Benefits to sales & customer success
In addition to the reward of having much more than “a say” in what gets built, our sales team benefits from this process because they know important features and requests will be delivered. Sales reps also have a heightened sense of what’s likely to be delivered in the near future, and what timelines are realistic for those initiatives.
In addition, our Customer Feedback Google Doc is a goldmine for sales and customer success to find past requests and inform customers or prospects that we’ve delivered on their request. This has been a tremendous driver of closed deals for us. Customers see that we’re really listening and how fast we work to cater to their needs.
For example, in response to Jake Henley’s feedback above (“I want to be able to assign deals to my team members”), our engineering team built a feature we call “Custom Data”, with which a customer can append their own notes and data of various types (names, numbers, dates, pick lists) to the automated data fields that we’ve already filled in. Instead of simply building the ability to assign a deal to someone, our engineering team built the ability to add custom data of various types and forms. With that enhancement, we went back to the prospective customer, and won them over in 9 days, after they had turned us down 2 months earlier.
As our company grows, our Customer Feedback cycle will need to grow with it. In the future, it may not be an all-hands. Perhaps it’ll include sales & engineering, with a summary circulated to the rest of the company. We may handle customer feedback separately from prospects’ feedback.
However, we’ll always keep key ingredients of this process, even if it can’t be company- or product-wide, because it’s had a tremendous impact on our ability to delight our customers. Plus, it’s one of the rituals that makes it so fun to be part of a growing company.
If you have a yearning to work on a sales team that has a voice that extends deep into product and other parts of the company, join us!