In a B2B environment, the sales team often interfaces with buyers. Existing clients, as well as sales prospects, become influencers on the product roadmap. Salespeople listen to those unwilling to buy a product unless specific features get added. Prospects don’t always tell the whole truth and customers aren’t always honest about what they need. When sales return with this type of feedback, they set about managing the product. So how does a product manager manage that friction?
We decided to sit down with Robert Roseberry, Founder, Revenue Growth Expert and Sales Coach at Sales Achievements to discuss the friction points between sales and product teams. Because sales teams often interact with buyer personas and product teams interact with the end users, unsatisfied sales leaders turn into business liabilities. We’ll need to put ourselves in their shoes to help us understand some of the challenges and oppositions they face.
Avoid the Grey Zones - Define the Market
The most toxic relationships a B2B product manager can have are with sales and marketing. Marketing is always going to want you to build things your competition has. We call it ‘featuritis’. It becomes just trying to emulate the others and trying to stay a step ahead. And when the sales team is engaged with the marketing team in a close-knit way, then now you have a two-headed monster to deal with. Sales is engaged with prospects but prospects are not customers. They are saying, ‘I will buy your product if you add feature A or B or C’. Product Managers don’t know if that feature is really a need or just a very specific isolated item that only a particular subset of customers would want. You need to validate that." -- Paul Ortchanian
Roseberry is concerned that if the product development is not in line with what the buyers need and what they’re expecting, then it might become a target for the status quo to disappear, "If I’m selling a product and I talk to a potential client and I ask them what they like about a certain product and they tell me what they like but also what they don’t like, then that can hurt me in the long run if my competitor goes out and develops it."
So who's the buyer? What bazaar is the sales team fishing in? Has the product achieved product-market fit in that segment? Does it align with the personas the product team defined?
How can we approach this type of situation?
The CEO has to define the market and make sure the sales team isn’t casting their nets too wide into the grey zones. It’s up to the CEO to say ‘look don’t go after these companies, let’s zero in on our true market.’
However, sometimes the CEOs forget that their role is to define the market, leaving it up to the sales team instead. The sales team may then randomly hit a market in which the company wasn’t originally going after. And, because this market has a lot of money, they will try to convince the product team to pivot the product by adding new features. Roseberry responded saying, "Yeah, we are sometimes changing the wheels while we are going down the highway at 100 miles an hour."
Bain Public Fonder and CEO, Paul Ortchanian provided an example of this situation:
"Landfills use Wastack's AI Laser towers for bird deterring. But then the sales team talks to mining, airports, and gas/oil excavation companies. And those guys are like ‘come back to us when you guys have rodent and bat deterring’. So, you end up in a situation where you strike a deal with an airport and that’s good money there, but to fit your product into runways, you need to comply to strict aviation regulations. The company then has to realize that the product wasn’t made to fit together with airports. It’s not the market you want to go after."
Bottom line: the CEO needs to make the unsound markets explicit.
Developing a Successful Product-Market Fit
If there is a good product-market fit and if the sales team’s efforts are transparent with the rest of the organization, a company will be successful. When sales cycles are too long and too many deals never close, it becomes clear that you don’t have product-market fit. Roseberry added, "You need to have sales cadence. If you are able to sell your product on an ongoing basis, then you’re in a good spot."
If a salesperson comes into a company that has a product-market fit, then it’s very clear who the market is, making it simple to focus on fishing for the right clients. However, if a salesperson comes into a company that is still struggling to understand their market, it is imperative for the product leader and the salesperson to work together toward defining that market with the CEO and the rest of the C-Suite.
"The number one company-killer is lack of market. You can do whatever you want but the market is going to win. You need to meet market expectations," said Ortchanian. Roseberry agreed that often times the timing of the product is off and the market may not be receptive enough to it.
The key takeaway is that the sales team needs to be transparent about the deals in the sales pipeline just as much as the product team needs to be transparent about its roadmap. Sales teams should be a part of the roadmap planning meetings and then product teams need to be part of pipeline decision meetings. Ultimately, it’s a product-market fit you’re trying to look for, and if both teams are transparent, then you’re going to get to make those tough decisions collectively.
Sales Pipeline Transparency: Asking the Right Questions
According to Roseberry, in some cases there are two sales pipelines, "There’s the real pipeline which includes opportunities that have a next step with the prospect to speak or meet again. But some organizations sort of kid themselves, their pipeline isn’t real. They just have a whole bunch of opportunities in there because they’re looking for investments."
Ortchanian added that pipelines are a direct reflection of the communication patterns of your organization,"It has to do with ego and butting heads, and everyone is just going to go their own way. Suddenly, as an organization, you’re stuck with this inability to put everything in one because of that."
As a product manager, you want to see that the sales team is putting the resources in place to validate the market but to do that you need to ask for transparency, make the sales pipeline visible, ask a lot of questions about the prospects and next steps and why deals aren’t closing etc.
Roseberry added that often times pipelines are filled with maybe opportunities, "A sales pipeline is filled with what we call sales stages*. Today’s CRMs have these steps along the way. But to know if a pipeline is real you just need to ask one question, which one has a confirmed next step with the prospect? If you’ve got that then all of a sudden, your pipelines are going to look quite different."
It all comes down to looking at someone’s pipeline and asking questions about what is going on and validating if the salesperson has or doesn’t have the next steps and why. It is essential to ask the right questions, for instance:
Why do you have 8 deals in the pipeline stuck at the proposal stage and they haven’t moved forward? What do you think happened?
"As product managers, we don’t make the effort of understanding sales. We just think that they are out there making politics trying to change either the market or the product. Ultimately you have to be able to talk to them about it," said Ortchanian.
It all boils down to this: you have to make sure product and sales teams are on the same page. It’s all about alignment, collaboration and communication.
Bain Public is a Product consultancy who helps you make smart product decisions that engage users and help deliver business results. We help ambitious companies create new value with design and technology-based products and strategies. Our group of experienced Product Managers works closely with CSuite leadership teams removing friction from all touch-points of the digital consumer experience to deliver product-market fit allowing companies to operate at scale.
Written by Loren O'Brien-Egesborg.Thanks to Robert Roseberry for participating in this article and to Paul Ortchanian and Charles Mon for reading drafts and overseeing aspects of its publication. The photo is Alec Baldwin "always be closing" Glengarry Glen Ross. Also, if you have any feedback or criticism about this article then shoot us an email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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