The Product Management Interface — Sales

Lenatics Solutions Pvt. Ltd.
7 min readJan 21, 2020

As a professional, over the past 20 years of working in the technology industry, I experienced several roles in organizations. Each one comes with its flavour of accomplishments and challenges. My favourite has been product management roles. There are multiple reasons for it. Whatever your designation, a product manager is only answerable to one question in an organization; how can I make my offering successful? When you start answering that question and cut across the hierarchies, you realize you are interacting with the same class of people with different hierarchical levels. For the want of a better term, I will call them interfaces. The interface I am going to talk about today is Sales. Product Management interacts with some forms of Sales folks daily. I will highlight possible conflicts and how Sales and PMs can understand each other rather than escalating across organization hierarchies that do not bring valuable outcomes.

You can only Sell to the Extent your Sales Person can Buy

Most technically inclined teams (PMs included) at every organization say they had a solid technical vision and better products, but the sales team never understood either. This is a significant loss of opportunity for the PM team. Because if they could convince the sales team of the value, the sales would have at least got a conversation going at every relationship they maintain. Keep showcasing the value of your products to your sales team at regular intervals. If you are a large company, show a catchy yet small demo that salespersons can conduct on their cellphones; you with the battles.

Excitement about the Product means Commitment, hence demands Investments.

Sales teams are known to present a great story. As part of their jobs, they keep reinforcing the greatness of the products to the customers. And it helps everyone in the value chain. But the hardest is when the sales team does not tell the complete story to internal teams or tries to work around internal organizational structure or politics. Let me give a personal experience; after you present your product, you hear how great the product is and how excited the sales team is. It is well beyond lip service, and their compliments are indeed genuine. But the next ask is for the Product Manager to present the solution to a customer or partner with a total revenue potential less than your travel budget or to a large customer deal with the probability of deal closure almost next to nothing in the closest time horizon. When you delve further, you realize the sales leadership never bought into the deals and is not ready to sponsor a pre-sales employee committed to it. Interestingly, most product managers in every organization know this very well and will never agree to travel on these pretexts.

The Product Manager is the Ultimate Solution Engineer

For most tech-savvy organizations, this is true. For some, it may be a prerequisite to getting a position in a product management organization. As a product manager, I have received requests for several such activities. I agreed to offer solution engineering when I got a full-time pre-sales engineer front-ending the solution engineering. No product manager effort should be for one customer unless it’s aiding in experience and developing expertise in the pre-sales, training, or support.

The Buck Stops with the Product Manager

In every organization that values its structures or processes, the product decisions should stop with the product managers even though it gets escalated to the highest level of the hierarchy. But, escalating the concerns to every organization level delays decisions and produces no immediate outcome. Again, I will like to cite a personal experience. The sales team was chasing a specific feature requirement for a customer that was large and needed a full six months of the release cycle. The deal had no revenue commitment or business case justification. So the Product Manager stated his inability to get the feature done for the quarterly deal closure and requested a revenue justification for a subsequent release to prioritize the requirement. Naturally, the sales teams escalated across the organization leadership that passed on the message to the BU head, who asked for a response from the Product Manager. The Product Manager highlighted to the BU head the response he already had provided 50–60 messages below in the same thread. And BU head restated the same portion and sent it to the email thread. All that over a month of inaction. And what those 50–60 emails contained? You guessed it right; quotes from every management literature that was irrelevant to the situation.

An Actual Customer Story is more important than any Statistics Presented.

Sales leadership in the particular organization got excited with the news item and sent it to the product management for action. The Product Managers immediately requested account management support from sales to initiate discussions or solution engineering with one or two customers. The sales leadership stated his inability to help on the specific case. I have personally always believed in sales with stories and marketing with numbers. When the sales team has interacted with the customer and experienced the pain, you can read the empathy in words and see a good connection. And more importantly, you can suggest Joint Activity Development, requirement analysis or any such engagement. But if it is just secondary statistics, the sales team is looking for leads. I prefer engaging marketing in such situations till the marketing team validates the potential. But, PM and marketing interface we will keep for another day.

Product Manager, I have a great deal waiting for you to Convince the Customer.

It is the most misunderstood and sometimes irksome request you would receive from the sales team. Most of the time, it is urgent, yet if you say you are busy or do not have the required travel document to travel, this request can wait for often months. It is crucial to understand the underlying need of the sales personnel. The most important one in international product sales is showing you have a product presence in the geographic region. The sales team makes a justification by producing a product manager. I have respected many such needs, but if there is a need like this, I suggest PMs plan a “PM Love” activity for customers. Where you meet many customers, sometimes these could be events; you engage in some vision sharing, some informal interactions of getting to know your customers better.

Product Manager, the Customer Requirement is so Complex.

The sales deal is waiting as no one can understand their requirements. Mostly, it comes in one of these types:

  1. The customer requirement is outside the scope of the product. The pre-sales team has understood it but does not want to spill the beans as they are not ready to face the sales leader who does not accept no for an answer.
  2. The pre-sales team genuinely does not understand the product.
  3. Availability commitment is not there with the pre-sales team for a deal not assigned to anyone.
  4. There is a rewards-sharing issue.

Unfortunately, most product managers cannot address the immediate needs leaving out everything else. And the long-term requirement is hard to implement and needs substantial training and overall commitments.

PM requesting to meet the customer

I love these kinds of meetings. Product Managers request Account Managers to establish contact with the customers, most likely to discuss new use cases and understand customer feedback on existing product features. A Product Manager engages from users to buyers across all the profiles. The account managers may find it overwhelming, yet this is one place arranging access to all the customer buyer profiles can be arranged. Secondly, it is hard to understand the internal organizational complexities of the customer. Third, the customer relationship may not be the best, and bargaining discussions may happen when renewals are pending. Always engage the account manager before engaging with any customer directly. Be prepared with all the pending support requests and their status. Invariably, whoever meets the customer represents customer support, may whatever his designation. Hence, the PM should be equally prepared from that aspect.

Poor Quality never Sells

Good salespeople can indeed sell anything. Most sales happen due to relationships than the product merit. All the more reasons why sales teams keep off from a product of poor quality. An inferior quality product does not carry a positive customer response. So justifying with testimonials from other customers will not satisfy the sales team. Sales professionals engage with a customer for a lifetime. If you look at their profiles, you will see they align to one or two verticals, understand the people in those verticals and keep expanding their reach into the same verticals. In short, they know the dynamics of the verticals and the buyers who also keep shuffling within a few sets of organizations. When sales professionals shift from one company to another, they try selling the same customers the wares of the new company. So, sales professionals carry a lifetime personal relationship with their customers. They would hate to sell a half-baked or unstable solution to their best customers. Be truthful to your sales professionals on things that are not so great in your product, rather than doing a blanket greatness advertisement. A customer with a strong relationship will even understand and agree to become a lighthouse/beta customer during your development phase.

If you look closely, these conflicts are conflicts of trust. Most of the time, sales teams tend not to leverage the pre-sales teams as effectively as they should. PM teams do not get to enhance the skills of the pre-sales teams as much as they can. And what goes on is firefighting which does not lead to a solution-building approach. I have worked with some of the best sales professionals, leaders, and managers. And have been exposed not so good experiences as well. It is always good experiences to cherish and bad ones to learn from.

We look forward to your comments. Feel free to add your Product Management war stories in interfacing sales below.

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Lenatics Solutions Pvt. Ltd.

The Practice of Product Management — Realizing Sustained Competitive Advantage