If you want to be a bad product manager, don’t give your sales staff a preview of product enhancements or new product launches. Their job is to sell the products that you produce, not to help create them — why would it matter what they think? Any time they spend talking with you is time that they’re not selling, and you don’t want to have a negative impact on their sales performance. Plus, if you did preview for them what you’re working on, they’d just go out and start selling that immediately, even though the work in progress may not be exactly what you’ll release. Since there’s potential to confuse or unintentionally mislead customers, it’s best not to show your sales staff anything until right before it’s ready for release. Of course, you will probably be doing so many other things right up to launch that you might not get a chance to show it to them until it’s already out the door!
If you want to be a good product manager, engage your sales staff in the product development stage. They have good information to share — they’re on the front lines with customers every day. Sales representatives have a keen understanding of customer needs and can anticipate quite well how current and prospective customers may react to product enhancements and many new products.
Getting input from sales is not a substitute for market research. While their opinions are valid and worth paying attention to, the feedback you get from sales will be different than the information you gather through site visits, win/loss analysis, observational research, usability testing, and other research activities. Good product managers understand the difference between the information gathered from each of these types of research and know how to balance conflicting and incomplete information.
Another important reason to involve sales in the product development process is for them to feel as though they had a say in the product’s creation. You want salespeople to feel that they are important and valued (because they are!) and that their opinions and input matter. Rather than throwing a finished product “over the wall” for them to sell, you want them to feel confident that they’re selling a good product in which they believe.
Sometimes, all it takes is spending a bit of time showing them prototypes or demos of work in progress and asking for their honest input. They are likely to resist if they feel like they didn’t have a chance to provide input, and you especially want your sales staff on your side since they will make or break the product’s success.
If your sales staff is selling many products, you want them to treat your product as important and you want them energized about your product. Not that you want them to ignore other products, but you also don’t want them to ignore yours. Getting their input throughout is a good way to keep your product front of mind and make sure they have a positive feeling about it when the next version is released.
While some salespeople will “leak” information to customers about product enhancements before they are finalized, for the most part you can control the conversation to focus around product development. Be clear with the salespeople that what you are showing is a work in progress, that you’re looking for their input, and that nothing is finalized yet. Make sure they realize that their role is not to sell this product or these enhancements to customers (yet), but to provide input on what they think based on their experience with customers. Separate this conversation from any other conversations you have with your sales staff; you don’t want them accidentally confusing this information with other information that is to be communicated to customers. Let them know that you’ll keep communicating with them throughout the process and will provide all of the necessary information to share with customers when the time is right.
Keeping your sales organization involved as products are being developed is an effective tactic for product managers, both to obtain good second-hand market feedback and to create an engaged and energized sales staff who will be effective at selling the products you are able to produce.