Image Credit: James Rotanson

How to Build the Perfect Product — Sales Relationship

“Yes! Use Ashley. She kills it in every meeting I have ever invited her to.”

This email made my week. It was from a veteran sales executive on a chain asking me to join a call with a prospective client. And more than boosting my confidence, it was a direct reflection of conscious work to make our Sales and Product relationship as strong as it could be.

Product and Sales teams don’t always have a great relationship. Product is juggling requests from accounts across the spectrum, while considering how to respond to customers and preserve the strategic product direction. Sales is on the front line, hearing from real and prospective customers about what it’s like to actually use the product and how you compare to competitors.

Sometimes Sales promises too much. Sometimes, Product loses sight of legitimate customer needs because they don’t fit well with the desired product narrative.

Fortunately, a great product and sales relationship is possible with regular communication, empathy, trust and transparency, and a shared goal to close the deal.

Regular Communication

Product managers with responsibilities that impact the sales team need regular communication with sales team leadership. Typically a twice-monthly meeting is enough to stay aligned on priorities and sales team needs. The format of these meetings can vary, but should typically cover:

  • Trends the sales team is seeing with regards to customer requests, pain points, and preferences
  • Feedback on existing functionality and particularly new features
  • Updates on product priorities, specifically calling out any items particularly important to the sales team
  • Updates on in-progress work and expected launch dates
  • Collaboration on sales and marketing efforts for new launches

Product managers should also make an effort to build relationships with account managers and sales development representatives, not just executives. Pop into standups or other regular meetings to hear what’s top of mind for your sales team, and share updates on development progress. These small touchpoints can go a long way to making the sales team feel comfortable coming to you with questions or suggestions.

Show Empathy

Demonstrating empathy is one of the most powerful ways you can develop strong working relationships, full stop. It’s especially true for sales teams, who have more customer knowledge and input than most teams in a company. They are your experts on your customers (not necessarily your users, as these are often different personas in B2B products); stop to really listen to what they say.

To build empathy with your sales team, join them as they do their job. Ask to observe demo meetings or go to a client’s office for a meeting. If you’re getting pushback or people seem hesitant, try these tips:

  • Assure them you won’t interfere — understand what role, if any, they want you to play in the meeting. Never force your way in where you’re not invited
  • Lay out your goals — client meetings are stressful enough without colleagues watching and critiquing your every move. Assure your account managers that your goal is to hear questions directly from potential customers and see how they respond to the product, not judge their sales performance
  • Prove your value — let them know you’re happy to answer any roadmap-related questions that may come up. If you do get called on, keep your answers succinct, confident, and welcoming. Remember, this is not your meeting. Resist the urge to turn it into a user testing session.

Trust and Transparency

The foundation of any good working relationship is trust. If your sales team doesn’t trust you to deliver on your timelines, or can’t trust that you will present a united front with them in customer meetings, don’t be surprised if you are actively kept out of direct customer interactions.

When building (or rebuilding) trust with account managers, start with transparency. Give regular updates on the status of current development projects, and be clear about how confident you are of any launch dates you put forward. If you think something will launch in February but you want to give the team wiggle room, tell your sales team, “We think this feature will launch in February, but just to be sure, say Q1 if you want to put a date on it for customers.”

Similarly, share what’s coming up next in the product, and more importantly, WHY. Sharing the why behind your roadmap is the single most effective way to build internal trust as a product manager.

Laying out the priorities and how you came to that decision shows members from different departments that their requests were heard, and explains how those different needs come together in one overall product roadmap that must balance overall business goals, your strategic product direction, and the tactical work to keep current customers coming back.

Lastly, to build trust with a sales team, be an ambassador for their needs internally. I once had an account executive say to me, “I tell you things in meetings, and then I hear you use those same words when explaining the problem to other people. I can’t tell you how reassuring it is to know that you’re listening.”

What a simple but powerful change to make in your daily interactions.

Be an Asset

There is no better way to build a strong sales / product partnership than to work together to close deals. If you’re new to participating in sales calls, this is a good primer.

What I have found most effective in building trust both with clients and my sales team is:

  • Do your homework — Know the state of the relationship, the goals for the meeting, and what role the account manager wants you to play on the call
  • Prep the sales team — Be available to coach your sales team in advance of the call. Let them know where progress stands or where this customer’s pet feature sits on the roadmap and why. Be prepared for them to share your information on the call, because they have a closer relationship with the client than you do.
  • Wait to be called on — I can’t say it enough…this is not your call. Wait for your sales partner to bounce a question your way; as trust is built, you won’t have to do this anymore, and they will expect you to jump in at the right time. That’s when you know you’ve made it!
  • Present a united front — Don’t contradict the account manager. If they misrepresent the product, redirect the conversation positively. Rather than, “Actually you can’t buy more licenses online yet…” try, “Yes, that’s definitely the direction the product is going in. At the moment, you can reassign licenses through the admin portal, and we’re actively working to let you upgrade your plan online anytime. We should have that released in Q2 2019.”
  • Don’t ramble — If you wonder if you’re talking too much, you are. Keep your answers focused, and don’t restate the same thing multiple times. Take cues from your account manager — experienced sales people are excellent at making a comment and being comfortable with a bit of silence.
  • Be ready to ask clarifying questions — Help your sales team uncover hidden needs and motivations by weaving in questions as you talk about the product. “How are you doing that right now?” Or “How would you see yourselves using that feature?” helps both you and your sales team better understand your customer.

A stellar Product/Sales relationship is possible if you’re willing to put in the work. Aiming for regular communication keeps everyone in sync, builds trust and increases transparency.

If you’re not yet comfortable in sales calls, ask to observe and work up to being an asset in those conversations. No matter what, present a united front in public and work on alignment in private.

A great relationship takes work on both sides, but with these small changes on the Product side, you’ll be well on your way to a healthy dynamic.

Product leader @discuss.io. Inspired by @adilwali, our 2 boys, & the beauty of the PNW. Passionate about gender equality, travel, & weekends at home.

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