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.