Work effectively with sales

If you want to be a bad product manager, distance yourself from your sales force. Your job is to get the product defined and built, after all, not to sell it. The company has levels of sales management focused on improving sales, so they don’t need you involved. If the product isn’t selling as much as it should, that’s a problem with the sales people, not with the product. Your success as a product manager is only defined on how good the product is, not how well it’s doing in the market.

If you want to be a good product manager, engage your sales force. If you manage a product which is sold by direct sales representatives, good relationships with the sales organization is important to the success of your product. Most sales groups sell more than one product, so ensuring that your product has enough “mindshare” among the salespeople for them to keep selling it is key.

There are a few key ways to engage your sales force:

  • Develop good relationships with salespeople and sales management: At a most basic level, you need to get to know your sales force. A product manager should be developing good relationships with all other internal stakeholders — marketing, engineering, finance — and sales is often forgotten about since they may be spread out across the country or world. Make an effort to learn their names and their territories, their backgrounds and experience. When you do get to see them in person — at sales meetings or trade shows — make sure to spend time getting to know them. You should not be trying to “schmooze” them or convincing them why your product is the best; you should just be interacting with them as you would with any other person or group with whom you work. It may be easier to spend more time with sales management, since they may be involved in more meetings, they may be part of your product council, or you may see them in the office on a more regular basis. Good relationships with sales managers will help create good relationships with salespeople, since the managers often send signals (implicit or explicit) to their sales forces about whether a product manager is one of “the good ones.”
  • Nurture the influential salespeople: In any group, there are natural leaders and standouts. For salespeople, these are often those who are consistently successful, though not necessarily the absolute top performer every year. It could be someone who has an exceptional knowledge of the market, or someone who has experience working for a competitor, or someone who has developed a style which has allowed them to be successful in difficult customer situations. These are the salespeople whom others respect and query for advice, and these influential salespeople can be great champions for your product for obvious reasons. If they develop a passion for your product and if you have a productive relationship with them, those positive benefits will be passed on to others. Additionally, they can serve as a great source of information for you, as they will pass on what they are hearing about from other salespeople, as well as from customers, competitors, and the market in general.
  • Spend time on sales calls: A good understanding of sales challenges comes from actually observing the sales process. Just like you need to observe customers to understand market needs, you need to observe salespeople to understand what they need to be successful. Spending time on sales calls — pitching to prospective customers or following up with existing customers — can help you understand the challenges your sales force faces. They will appreciate that you are interested in learning more about what they do and giving them some of your valuable time. It also gives you one-on-one time with sales representatives as you prepare for and debriefing from sales calls. Sometimes, the informal discussions while waiting for an appointment or over coffee after a successful sales call are the most beneficial.
  • Answer their questions before they are asked: Responding to questions from your salesforce is good; answering questions before they are asked is better. The better you know your salespeople, their customers, the market, and the type of questions that come up, the better job you can do preparing them for success. Giving them the materials to respond to customer questions quickly makes them look more professional, improves their efficiency, and ensures your customers are receiving consistent information. More importantly, your sales force will be happy, and you’ll have more time to spend developing your strategy and understanding market needs.
  • Listen to their input and suggestions: Most salespeople have lots of ideas and suggestions. Though they are not in a product development role, they do hear feedback from customers and come up with potential changes and enhancements based on their own knowledge of the product and the market. Encourage their feedback and express your appreciation for everything they pass along. Though you should not accept suggestions blindly and implement every request that comes your way, product managers should at least give proper consideration to feedback from sales. Even if the ideas never become reality, the fact that you took the time to listen and evaluate the feedback will be appreciated.

This is by no means a complete list of ways to develop a good working relationship with sales, though product managers who follow even just some of these tips will benefit. An effective relationship with sales will help to create a better product that gets the proper attention it deserves from salespeople, ultimately making the product — and the product manager — more successful.

15 thoughts on “Work effectively with sales

  1. Jeff:

    Great observations. All too often I’ve seen product managers – particularly the newly minted ones – adopt an “us versus them” mentality as it relates to the sales force.

  2. Jeff:
    Once again you are spot on, the nrturing the influencial and getting to know all their name is as important with customers as with internal sales.

    Gregg: I recognize the us vs them in my office… hard to get rid of once it is built in.

  3. The buy-in, insight and input of sales is critical if your product is to be successful and not just because they will have to sell it. They are the voice of the customer. Anyone developing customer-centric products needs sales as a direct channel to the customer. Furthermore, I have found their participation in pre-selling the product a boon for cash flow.

  4. Sales can be a valuable resource in identfying area for product improvement and/or the creation of new products. The key problem is identfying the ‘influential ones.’ These may not be the top revenue generators but understand the problems that your products solve. Determining who these are takes time and interaction.

    However, there is a major downside – sales people are often focused on their latest deal or on why the last big deal was lost. You have to beware of the “If it came in green, I could sell a hundred of these” stories. The truth may be if you build it in green, you might sell a dozen.

    Sales can be a great source of marketplace ideas but you must do your due diligence to determine if their is a viable business case behind them.

  5. This is an excellent post by Jeff (and the related post at Ask a Good Product Manager), and a great discussion by everyone who commented.

    I agree with Jeff that Product Managers should engage the sales force closely. One caveat I’d point out is that PMs shouldn’t be completely driven by all the requests coming from the Sales team.

    I’ve noticed some companies where Sales drives product requirements almost completely – and the product ends up being a hodge-podge of features needed to win deals-du-jour! 🙂

    I wrote a more detailed post on this topic at our new Practical Product Management blog.

    That said, I agree that PMs should engage the Sales team and work collaboratively, rather than ignoring them.

  6. Hi,

    I belong to the IT and Telecom industry and have rotated myself through development, sales and product management. I think in our technology space good product managers need to have a strong orientation in sales, otherwise we end up with the endless debates on product functionalities without understanding whether the whole excercise makes business sense

  7. Jeff, Excellent points. Product Managers also add to the failure of many CRM initiatives, by asking for “Tick Boxes” to be added to CRM in order to hold sales reps more accountable for promoting particular products. I have conducted research on what I have termed “The CRM Dilemma” that has concluded that any such activity controls in CRM, will cause the sales force to work as a unified team to defeat it. I have presented my research on “The CRM Dilemma” on my blog of the same name if anyone is interested in reading it. My unique research has been getting a lot of attention and has sparked many discussions on the true reason behind CRM failures.

  8. “However, there is a major downside – sales people are often focused on their latest deal or on why the last big deal was lost. You have to beware of the “If it came in green, I could sell a hundred of these” stories. The truth may be if you build it in green, you might sell a dozen.”

    I completely agree. You have to be wary of this pitfall with even the best sales reps.

    As strongly as I agree with the original post–PMs must have good relations with the field–there’s a slippery slope. In the research I’m doing right now about how PMs view their jobs, there’s a big gap between the amount of work PMs do on behalf of the field, and the (smaller) amount they feel they should be doing.

    Sales enablement can be a bottomless pit, into which I’ve seen more than one PM fall. Hey, if you’re the product expert, why not do the demo for this big opportunity? And so on.

  9. I agree that sales reps are guilty of asking PMs for products or changes that they have little evidence to support. One of the main benefits of CRM that has been lost through “The CRM Dilemma” is the recording of actual customer feedback collected by sales reps. One of the reasons (Beyond the dilemma) for the lack of feedback, is companies often do not give sales reps access to aggregate feedback data. Having been a sales rep for many years, if sales must substantiate requests to PM’s with customer feedback, AND they are given access to the feedback as it is collected, sales reps will be much more engaged in the entire process, including the sell-in.

  10. Great post Jeff. I spent a tour of duty in the field as an SE before becoming a product manager. That experience was invaluable and helped me understand the pressures and joys of being a member of the sales team. It’s vital to have a good working relationship with your sales team.


  11. hi, jeff
    your post are great, i learn a lot of knowledge from your article

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