Do Product Teams Need To Sell?

Finding early adoption and ongoing product loyalty can be accelerated by getting product people involved in sales.

Photo of a confused man by Louis Hansel on Unsplash

Disclaimer: This article holds mostly true for all products but is especially true of B2B and complex products with a complex sales cycle.

I’m Dead Serious

If you just want to kick the twitter hornet’s nest, tweet “Do designers need to code?” A virtual turdstorm will follow. That question is pure clickbait and nobody really cares about the debate.

However, the question, “Do product teams need to sell?” is as serious as a heart attack. My answer is an unequivocal yes.

There are two reasons why product teams need to sell:

  1. Persuading people is an essential part of all mission-critical roles.
  2. A product teams involvement can significantly accelerate sales.

“It’s Not My Job”

To discover whether a product is solving a real problem, the product team needs to do three key things: establish desirability, feasibility, and viability.

Put another way, product teams need to know if the customer is excited about using the proposed product (desirability), it is possible for engineering to create the proposed solution (feasibility), and finally, they need to know if the product will be able to return value to the company (viability).

In my experience, product teams love the first phase, tolerate the second, and pray that someone else will do the last phase. Unfortunately, what I hear from product managers, designers, engineers, and developers is, “Selling the product is sales and marketing’s responsibility.” This is unfortunate because selling is actually the best part of creating a useful product. Seeing your product creation return value to the people that created it, is extremely satisfying.

First Things First

At a high level, finding a product-market fit requires knowing at least three things, 1) you must be sure there is a problem worth solving, 2) you must know if the market will exchange value* for a solution, and finally, 3) You will want to know about the size of the total addressable market (TAM) if you want to scale the product.

*I use the word value and not money because some products don’t require a customer to exchange money for the product, but they may be expected to give up their time or attention in exchange for something of value.

Problem definition must come before solution development. If the solution gets to the table first, then bad things happen. You end up spending a lot of marketing money promoting a solution that doesn’t have a problem to solve. Once you have a clear problem to solve you can then discover if the customer desires the solution(s) you have in mind.

Desirability can be established through prototype validation (e.g. a design sprint or directed discovery), and qualitative interviews with prospects. What desirability does not tell you is whether the customer will pay for the solution or who is the ideal customer.

While it’s easy enough to establish desirability, it’s very difficult to know if that desirability will translate into a committed user of the product.

This last point highlights the challenge that although you might be able to find early customers, they are not necessarily the ideal customer. While product teams are generally well versed on methods of discovery, they often fail to go beyond establishing desirability and feasibility. It’s probably human nature to extrapolate from a few “wow this product is so cool” comments to predictions of massive sales, but alas.

So while it’s essential that you establish the user’s desire for your solution, the work doesn’t end there. You still need to establish context. The product must still determine how the product fit’s into the customer’s life (what’s the job to be done?) and how it fits into the customer’s buying process (acquisition, engagement, onboarding, and beyond).

Finding Product-Market Fit Is Your Job

Understanding how your product fits in the user’s life is about understanding the problem the user is trying to solve with that product. Having worked on hundreds of projects, I’m a firm believer that if you understand the problem well enough, the solution will become painfully obvious. The more you talk to users, the more you understand their problems. This is also true of product-market fit and sales.

The more you talk to customers, the more they tell you when they want to be sold to and how they want to be sold to.

Although the product-market fit concept is discussed in several books and articles, most of these models stop at testing with customers. While testing is essential, it’s insufficient to establish fit. Even iterating on the MVP feature set is insufficient. You must go all the way to exchanging value (the sale) before you can even start to know if you have a fit.

Establishing Early-Stage Product-Market Fit With Sales

If you’re a startup then the founders are almost always the product team and the sales team so it’s almost inevitable the product people will do the selling. In these small startup teams, there’s no-one else to do the selling and that turns out to be a good thing. Taking new ideas to new prospects and persuading them to try out a new product often doesn’t even feel like selling. It feels like research.

Early stage companies, and in some case early-stage products, are often sold to the first customers by product owners. This gives the product teams direct insight into how the sales process works.

Product teams get up close and personal with their early-stage customers. Because product people are naturally curious, they are often asking questions that give them the ammunition they need to make the product and the sales process more attractive.

Try asking your prospects the following question, “If you were selling this solution to your boss, how would you describe it in terms of business value?”

Their nimbleness also means they can take action on feedback immediately. This is an advantage that startups have over enterprises. In the same way that a design team might tweak an early UI, the product team can tweak the feature set to match the market needs.

Those first sales are extremely important to product teams and subsequently to the company. You learn more about your value in the first weeks and months of sales than you can possibly learn in any amount of research, prototyping, MVP’ing, and user testing. It’s, for this reason, I believe that product teams should sell.

A Real World Example

Several months ago we worked on a project that resulted in the redesign of the sales process for a complex B2B SaaS product. The client had initially engaged us to redesign their product UI but during the discovery work, we identified a more serious problem: their target audience was very unclear of the company’s value proposition.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

To test if this was a problem that could be solved without a full UI overhaul we designed an experiment. We would create a simple sales pitch that clarified the value of the product. This new pitch would be shared with prospects over the phone. Our client provided us with a list of prospects, and our product design team called about a dozen of these prospects. Keep in mind that our role here was to test the effectiveness of the pitch against an alternative to redesigning the UI, not to sell anything. Calls went something like this…

“Hi Jeff, I’m Kate from XYX Co, and I’m researching the effectiveness of a new approach to explaining our product value. Do you mind helping me?
“Ah, sure.”
“Thanks, can I read it to you and then ask you for feedback? It’ll take 2 minutes.”
“Yes, that sounds easy enough.”
“Excellent. [insert new pitch here]. So what do you think? Does that describe what we do well enough that you could make a business case to your team?”
“Yes, I’ve known about your company for a while but didn’t really understand what you did until now.”
“Excellent, thanks for helping me out. Would it be okay if we set up a time to walk you through the product to see if my description meets real-world expectations?”
“No problem, I’d be happy to.”

Two interesting things happened. The first was that our product designers were easily able to get through to the prospects because they said they were doing was research, which they genuinely were. The second thing was that our product designers were able to control the outcome because they weren’t pushing for a sale, just feedback.

Growing Up

Once the product-market fit has been established, by making sales, you can add fuel to the process and start to scale. When you’ve got several clients, you can now easily identify others like them and target them with your marketing. Early sales give the entire sales and marketing process enormous advantages.

However, it’s when scaling starts, that product generally retreats from the sales process and becomes less engaged with clients in the buying phases. This is especially true of the more complex sales associated with B2B software integrations. The sales teams take over the day-to-day work of talking to customers. I’ve also heard salespeople say things like, “I don’t really think we want product people talking to our clients, they might make promises we can’t keep.” The irony of this statement is that product people feel similarly about overpromising salespeople.

In this case, acting like a startup, even when you’re all grown up, has its advantages.

The solution appears to be to include both sales and product at every step. This gives clients the opportunity to communicate directly to the people that craft the product and gives sales the opportunity to learn what clients really feel about the value or lack of value of the product.

Selling Is Life

Selling is something we all do, even though most would deny it. Every day we persuade, move and nudge people in various directions, many times without even knowing it. My experience has taught me that it’s better to be intentional about your skills and apply these to the world we live in, in positive and constructive ways.

It can be awkward and hard. As I often joke, sales can feel like you’re taking a swim in the ocean of rejection every single day. But you also learn the importance of not taking yourself and the feedback too seriously. You focus on the objective data and become a better product creator.

Get out of the building. Sell something. You’ll be glad you did.


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