A Brief History of Product Management: Starts With a Spark
Product management was originally seated in marketing but has evolved. It's still misunderstood but it's now getting the recognition it deserves with product people...
Effective product managers employ all sorts of strategies to gather actionable intelligence about their products so they can continually improve them. They study the competitive landscape. They monitor the web for discussions and unfiltered opinions about their products. And they regularly put surveys and questionnaires out to their user base to find out where a product is hitting the mark and where it might be falling short.
But many product managers fail to fully tap into one of the richest sources of useful and up-to-date information about their products: their own sales teams.
This can be a tragic oversight, because a company’s sales organization often has valuable information that a product manager simply won’t be able to gather anywhere else.
“Your sales organization has valuable product information that you simply won’t be able to gather anywhere else.”
For many product managers, obtaining this information from the sales group will require a shift in culture, or at least some proactive work on the PM’s part. Sales reps are busy, incentivized to spend their time selling, and they are not likely to come to you on their own and volunteer the interesting learnings they have compiled while out there pitching your product. In fact, in many cases your sales reps might not even realize the research gold they’ve managed to gather in their sales efforts.
But whether they realize it or not, the information locked away in your sales reps’ brains (and, if you’re lucky, in their notes) often really is gold in terms of actionable knowledge about your products. So we recommend you implement whatever processes you can to regularly receive this information from your sales team. It can pay big dividends for your products—which, you should point out to them, can also mean big dividends for your sales reps’ paychecks.
Here are five of the most valuable questions to ask your salespeople.
Here you might uncover all sorts of interesting feedback from your sales reps. As a PM, you’re understandably focused on features, the user experience, and other strategic priorities on your product roadmap. But purchasing your product involves a much broader experience than just using it. You need to be aware of issues or shortcomings that might show up during any part of a customer’s experience with your company.
What if a common sticking point in the sales cycle is that your product takes too long to ship? What if, when your sales rep tells a prospect they can have the product within eight weeks from the date of payment, many of those prospects quickly lose interest?
Or what if the fact that your company’s software doesn’t include professional training is enough to turn many would-be customers away—or to drive them to a competitor who does offer training?
These are objections your sales reps might hear regularly when meeting face-to-face with a prospect, but which you might otherwise never hear about. So ask.
Here, too, your sales team will know the answer. They’ve delivered your sales demo. They’ve sat in prospects’ offices and responded to objections about your product. They’ve had these conversations over and over.
They know what functionality your product is lacking that could help them close more deals.
In some cases, of course, prospects might demand much more than your product does or is even designed to do. In those cases, the issue might simply be that the sales rep is talking to the wrong company.
But there will be instances where prospects explain to your reps that they would gladly buy your product if only it offered one small piece of functionality that it currently doesn’t—and that your team could build relatively easily. It will of course be your call whether or not to add functionality to win a single customer, and we would generally advise against such decisions, particularly if the feature addition in question wouldn’t have broad appeal.
But if your reps are hearing similar feature-add requests from several prospects, and if the functionality seems like a logical addition to your product that could help you earn even more new business, you might have uncovered a legitimate roadmap priority that really moves the product-sales needle.
Your sales reps will know as well as anyone where the boundaries are in terms of viable prospects and markets for your products. They are incentivized to sell as much of those products as they can, of course, and they don’t want to either waste their time selling to industries that wouldn’t be interested or to miss a market that might be brimming with eager prospects.
But perhaps in pushing those boundaries, in trying to tap into different user personas or industries, your sales reps have found that your products are in some cases almost a fit, but not quite.
Maybe if you developed a stripped-down version of the product, for example, your reps could go after smaller businesses because you could offer this version at a much lower price. Perhaps simply removing the built-in support that comes with your enterprise product might allow your reps to offer a small-business version—and tap into a vast pool of new customers.
Or maybe if you built in an added layer of cybersecurity on your roadmap, you would enable your sales team to approach the highly-regulated industries they had been simply writing off because they knew those industries could never deploy your product without fear of landing on the wrong side of regulators.
“Product managers should work with sales reps to identify ways to make their products relevant to new markets.”
Work with your sales reps to identify ways to modify your products that make them relevant to new markets. Your sales team knows that it’s in their best interest to help you—so you might find great insights and ideas coming from these discussions.
Whatever industry you’re in and whatever products your company sells, the chances are overwhelming that you have competition, most likely a lot of it.
And your sales reps will have a more acute understanding than anyone about just how price-sensitive your prospects are.
Maybe you’re in a commodity market, and your salespeople keep hearing that ABC, Inc. has offered them a very similar product at a much lower price.
Or maybe your reps simply don’t know how much if any flexibility they have in their pricing, and they’re missing sales opportunities because they fail to offer the discounts or other incentives that they could.
You need to have these conversations with your sales teams to learn where your product’s pricing and other terms are hitting sticking points in the market. The solutions might be easier than you or your sales reps realize.
Here’s a question that provides a couple of benefits at the same time.
First, it can obviously give you a window into what resources your sales force believes it is lacking and could benefit from. Because they are the professionals on the front lines with prospects—indeed, because their very livelihood depends on successfully selling your products—you are likely to get some great ideas here for sales tools to build. Not marketing fluff. Not superficial leave-behinds. Just powerful tools that your reps know might actually help strengthen their chances for the sale.
Maybe your sales force believes they need more targeted leads. Maybe they keep finding prospects losing interest in their sales demo because it’s boring—and they believe that if they had a short, dynamic, video-based demo they could deliver a much more effective sales pitch.
Or perhaps your sales reps just want more technical sales support with them in the field, to get them through those tricky sales meetings where the IT or security managers hit them with a bunch of highly technical questions and objections.
At the same time, asking your reps this question is also a great way to deepen and improve your relationship with sales, a valuable bond to strengthen. Having the sales force know that the product team is there to help them, and is really listening to their ideas, requests, and concerns, can significantly improve the entire communication process.
Because no two salespeople are identical in terms of approaches, strengths, or weaknesses, we’d also recommend you ask your top sales folks and your weakest (or newest) sales reps the same question: What’s your biggest obstacle or drawback in selling our products?
You’ll probably receive very different answers from the better performers than the responses the weaker reps give you. That’s good—because now you have some guidance to help you tailor your work in supporting everyone across the sales team.
What other questions do you think product managers should ask their sales reps? Please share your ideas in the comments section.