Product management and sales: From hostility to harmony

By Nicholas Patrick

Much has been written about the relationship between product management and engineering. But equally important, and sometimes equally challenging, is the relationship between product management and sales. While the relationship between product management and sales can be tension-filled, it can also be extremely productive when managed correctly. Here are three key rules for PMs looking to successfully interact with sales, and two key rules for salespeople looking to successfully interact with PMs.

Rules for PMs:

1. YOUR SALES TEAM KNOWS MORE ABOUT YOUR CUSTOMERS THAN YOU DO. As a PM, you obsess over customers, their needs, and potential solutions. But the sales team talks to customers and potential customers ALL DAY EVERY DAY. Next to the customer, nobody wallows in customer pain and real customer problems more than the sales team. Knowledge transfer from the sales team to the PM team, and vice versa, is crucial to building great products. In order to facilitate this knowledge transfer, PMs should proactively ask to sit in on sales calls, chat with salespeople over coffee or drinks, set up regular sales-PM knowledge transfer meetings or brainstorming sessions, and loop key sales leaders in on spec reviews or product planning meetings. Engage your sales team, make them feel special, and they'll reward you for it.

2. YOUR SALESPEOPLE CAN PUT YOU IN CONTACT WITH CUSTOMERS. So, you're looking to do some usability research? You're looking for customers to try out a beta version of your new feature? Great, your sales team knows which customers or potential customers would be perfect for it, and often have strong enough relationships to get those customers on the phone or in the office the next day. As a PM, you'll get critical customer feedback -- and the salesperson often gets extra face time to sell the customer on "the next big thing."

3. KNOW WHEN (AND HOW) TO SAY NO. PMs may feel overwhelmed with requests from sales, but it doesn't have to be that way. While some companies have resorted to "token systems" or other gimmicks for prioritizing feature requests from sales, such systems often infantilize salespeople and subjugate them to the PM team. The reality is that the PM team and the sales team are equally important, and neither should be subservient to the other.  Instead, PMs should engage salespeople in real, honest conversations about product vision, the feature roadmap, and engineering bandwidth -- and not be afraid to say no. Once the "feature bar" and prioritization process is no longer a black box for sales, the relationship between sales and PM will become much more efficient and respectful.

Rules for salespeople:

1. DON'T START WITH THE FEATURE REQUEST. START WITH THE CUSTOMER PROBLEM AND BUSINESS OPPORTUNITY. PMs become frustrated when salespeople bring a long list of feature requests, without seeing the big picture or the underlying (often unarticulated) customer needs. By starting with the customer problem and the quantified business opportunity, sales can help PMs prioritize and design the right set of features to fill the gap.

2. THE WORLD DOESN'T REVOLVE AROUND YOU. Though you may have just gotten off the phone with a huge customer needing "just one more thing..." to seal the deal, the reality is that other salespeople are experiencing the same thing, engineers are already bogged down executing against their list of dozens of features and bugs, and the poor PMs are being pulled in twenty different directions, stuck in the middle of it all. Make sure your feedback channeled to the PM team, but be patient, respectful, and understanding. And don't exaggerate the need. The PM will be more receptive to your feedback -- and more likely to slot it into the next sprint -- than if you're pushy and unrealistic.


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