What does an effective sales team look like at a product-led organization?
“Sales already promised it.”
I once joined a B2B company as a Product Manager in the the middle of the year, so their entire product roadmap was set and in motion. My team was responsible for building a feature that I quickly realized did not align with our strategic initiative for the product. I questioned the purpose of this feature, and was met with the worst possible answer: “Oh, well the sales team promised it to one of our big customers, and they’ve already included it in their signed contract.” So we had to build it, and we had to build it fast, as the deadline was looming.
With no other option but to get to work, we began interviewing, prototype testing, and gathering feedback to understand the client’s hopes for this added feature. The results? They essentially wanted it to predict the future, which even the best of our developers assured me they could not do. Needless to say, we didn’t have high hopes for satisfying expectations. But instead of scrapping the feature like we should have, management instructed us to continue building “what we could.” We couldn’t meet our customer’s end needs, but hey, at least we would meet our contractual obligations. We spent time, money and effort on a useless, disappointing feature that should never have been promised to our customer in the first place.
So what happened here? Well without all of the above context, it might appear that this failure of a feature could be attributed to bad judgement or incompetency from Product Management. In fact, whenever I hear a company complain that their Product Managers “lack vision,” I am not surprised to learn later that the real problem stems from a similar process to the above example. A Product Manager is not given room to explore and identify what to build next when they are constantly behind schedule, chained to roadmaps that are full of untested features for customers who have already signed their contracts. So who promises all of these shiny features that hijack the next 6 months of builds and hinder Product Management’s processes? The sales team.
Put simply, sales processes can be the downfall of an otherwise good Product Management process.
How did we get here?
In traditional B2B companies, sales was the driving force behind strong businesses. Without a great sales team on the ground bringing in contracts and solidifying clients, there would have been no company to run. Salespeople were motivated to reel in the big fish because their salaries reflected each closed deal- client signatures were directly correlated to success. So it’s easy to understand why it became the norm for salespeople today to promise the world in features just to snag that name on the dotted line.
But when sales returns to the office with a new client to answer to and a list of contractual features to implement, they become the ones leading product development- not the Product Managers. This results in a backlog so congested and long that teams struggle to keep up and satisfy requirements quarter after quarter. There is never any time for Product Management to think strategically and proactively about the product, so a complex hodgepodge of one-off, usually broken features is delivered instead.
I’m not saying that the whole system of sales is inherently destructive. Especially when a company is just starting off, signed contracts are its lifeblood, and product teams can really benefit from these early clients and adopters that sales works so hard to bring in. Catering to these early clients’ needs and iterating around their feedback is necessary, and it ends up benefiting both sides of the relationship.
But as a company starts to grow, this kind of symbiotic relationship is no longer the most sustainable or beneficial model for an organization or its clients. With more customers on the roster, the goal evolves into building a product that will scale and appeal to many, not one that satisfies the exact needs of a select few. It’s hard, however, for the sales team and the overall company to break these habits of including the customer in the development process. When everyone is used to co-creating instead of thinking strategically, companies miss the big picture. And this is where a reactive process becomes dangerous to the overall organization. These product teams have not learned to look forward in order to plan their strategy, and get stuck building from a list of requests that reach short term profits and meet invalidated goals.
How do you become a product-led company?
For your sales and product teams to work in blissful harmony together, two things need to change. First, sales needs to rethink their process from a product-led company point of view. Second, your organization needs to shift their sales team’s source of motivation so that compensation does not directly correlate to signed contracts.
How do you teach product to sales?
Sales should continue to be the first line of contact between the organization and the client- a focus on building strong relationships and a desire to help those potential clients get what they need is still key. But the method at which they approach this relationship must change. Sales teams could benefit from the same user experience or user interview techniques that product teams rely on.
Clients typically talk in solutions- they’ll say things like, “we need a button for this” or “we need to build an app to give our customers this.” But it is your internal product team’s job to hear these solution ideas and work backwards to identify their actual problem. Only then can they figure out what the best feature solutions may be. Sales teams, then, should be talking to clients from this same product point of view. They need to be able to empathize and understand their clients’ problems, so instead of, “I promise our company will build that feature you want,” it’s, “I promise our company can help solve your problem.” Then, after gathering an understanding of the problem from multiple clients and seeing how it applies globally, sales can return to product with valuable information that lets the product team figure out how best to move forward. This halts the dangerous cycle of promising unvalidated or planned features, and instead puts sales and product on the same page. Sales essentially becomes the first line of contact between product and client, rather than acting as an indirect conflict of interest with the product team.
How do you motivate your sales teams?
Stop relying solely on closed contracts to measure the success of your sales team. It’s certainly the easiest way to measure success, but it also hurts your entire organization when used as the sole metric.
Often times, sales teams will bring in clients who ultimately are not the best fit for your business or your product. This leads to a revolving door of unsatisfied clients, who loved what sales had to say but not what the product could realistically deliver. Instead, motivate your team to not just close any contracts, but the right contracts. Balance the number of signed clients with the strength and commitment level of that client. Then, teach your sales team to work closely with your product team by providing information that they are in a unique position to gather- feedback on problems, competitors, market trends, customer satisfaction, and value propositions.
How can the product team Help?
By keeping communication open! The product team’s process, including their roadmap, should be easily accessible and clear to your sales team. Imagine how much it will help sales to be able to walk into pitches with a strong understanding of what features are in build mode, what kinds of bugs are being fixed, etc. They will be able to sell based on the reality of where the product is today and where it is likely headed in the future. Just make sure to clarify to the sales team that there is a process in place, and just because something is in a roadmap as a considered feature does not mean it is absolutely getting built.
Every part of an organization affects Product Management. Sales needs to be better equipped with the tools and processes of a strong product team, so that their client/company communication is in line with the realities of the product itself. So encourage the following language the next time your sales team meets with potential clients: “I completely understand your problem. Let me talk to my development team to see how we might be able to solve it for you.”
Learn more about this and other Product Management best practices by enrolling in Product Institute, our online PM school.
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