Product Managers and Sales: The Alliance that Leads to a Better Product

5 minute read

It’s 4:30 on the last day of a tough quarter. You’re getting flooded with new customer emails, singing the praises of sales reps who ARE KILLING IT!!!!! High-fives are thrown, beers are cracked, and future commission checks are pretty much inked.

But not everyone is happy. Not all deals were won. Some of your sales colleagues are still in their seats, silently seething over why they didn’t hit quota. More often than not, they’re blaming the product, thinking about the lack of highly requested features. The ones they’ve been harping over for months. The ones you chose not to build. 

Hearing your product broken down into missing features and lost deals is enough to make any product manager wary of working with sales. It’s hard to focus on building a truly great product when you’re just trying to stay afloat in the non-stop flood of requests, often tied to strong personalities and large dollar signs.

The problem with this dynamic is that sales has such good insight into the market, and they know very well what your product’s strengths and weaknesses are.

When product managers collaborate with sales, they create better products.

Why Stronger Ties with Sales Creates Better Products

Like product managers, salespeople can be visionaries — 20% of CEOs started out in sales or marketing. Plus, their core skills lie in getting people to flock to, and love, your product. 

Sales teams are invaluable to product managers because: 

  • They talk to scores of people about the product, and they have a vast amount of data about who buys and who doesn’t. 
  • They have a deep understanding of how your product stacks up to the competition and a strategic viewpoint of your industry. 
  • They’re amazing negotiators. Learning how they work might help you improve your prioritization skills. 

These are definitely people that you want to have in your camp.

Use Sales Conversations to Get Closer to the Users’ Problem

Product managers may know features and functionalities inside and out, but sales teams know the language of the users. They hear the emotion behind the decision to buy. They know every customer who ran into that bug during their trial. They vividly recall the deal they lost to a competitor three times more expensive over a feature that won’t really help the business.

Understanding this insight could help you build more engaging products from the start and improve the most relevant features as your product grows.

Periodically sit in on sales calls to hear the users’ voice first hand

Alex Stanciu

 Alex Stanciu, Product Manager at Auth0 says that sales calls let project managers see the mental model customers have about the product early on.

Choosing the most valuable calls, out of the dozens that happen in a given week, requires a bit of foresight and strategizing with sales. Alex recommends targeting calls with unintended use cases for your product:

"The most interesting calls are when customers have unique edge cases, stretching and pushing the boundaries of what we offer. We discover potential new ‘jobs’ we can aim to solve, and test our foundational principle of ‘Build a Platform, not a Product’ when we see our Platform provide solutions to challenges we've never seen before."

Product and sales teams who sit close together may find it easier to collaborate — this is especially important for early stage teams, when usage data is not statistically significant.

Ask for top threes

Dejana Bajic

Dejana Bajic, Product Manager at Yelp and formerly at UserVoice, writes that she was usually introduced to UserVoice prospects by sales teams.

When she wasn't able have a one-on-one conversation with a prospect, Dejana asked her sales colleagues for the top three no-sale reasons and the top three questions/concerns before or during the free trial. This is a great approach if you’re crunched on time. 

Analyze Sales Data to Dig Into User Trends

In most organizations, sales people have the most data points about prospects and soon-to-be users. Collecting and understanding this data will point to which parts of the product are resonating with users and which parts are duds.

Because a lot of this data is valuable at the aggregate level, collecting insights ad hoc through chat or the occasional check-in won’t be as effective. 

Instead, you can put some easy-to-follow processes in place that give you a bit more organization and a better view of broad trends: 

Collect valuable closed/won data, every single time

An easy-to-use system for collecting feedback will make your life easier and prevent key insights from slipping through the cracks. To ensure that salespeople to stick to it, embed the process into one of their regular, core activities. For example, every time they update whether they’ve won or lost a deal in the CRM, have them fill out a form with more information.

At Appcues, our sales people fill out a simple, 12-question form whenever they win a new customer. This data is reported back into Slack:

Sales Feedback Form

The information also sits in Typeform, which we can use to easily export to Excel for further data analysis.

Determine product impact potential 

Jake Butler

Jake Butler, Product Manager at MeYou Health, uses sales conversations and cross-functional data to prioritize features.

Analyzing closed/won data by revenue opportunity can help you predict which features will have the biggest impact. Consider both immediate revenue gains and long-term value. As Jake says,

“I’m not opposed to building a feature to close a deal, as long as I can see that the feature will bring value to the wider customer base, or the deal is enough $$$ to be worth redirecting resources without sacrificing too much attention to other customers.” 

Run pilots and get buy-in early

Tom Huntington

Tom Huntington, CEO of Windshield, warns product managers about taking alignment for granted.

Writing in the ProductHub blog, Tom discusses the work that product managers have to put into alignment, especially since product managers’ visions stretch beyond the sales cycle. He writes: 

“With skeptical stakeholders, consider running a pilot so that everyone can see the product succeed in the marketplace. The true art, one executive pointed out, is to involve stakeholders such that they think the product was their good idea.”

Learn how to pitch to sales

Cliff Gilley

Cliff Gilley, a.k.a. the Clever PM, advises product managers to pitch to sales and asking, “How will this help you close more deals?”

To take this even further, you could have a rule where you don’t go furthering into building the product until sales “buy.” Not only can this increase your product sales, but it can also help you predict the potential impact of what you build, before you pour countless hours into creating it. 

Without Sales, Your Product Will Fail

Sales and product may seem to live in separate worlds at times. We’ve heard of startups drawing a physical line in the middle of the office dividing sales and account managers from engineers and product teams. The one, and very clear, rule that engineers and product teams had for their side? “No sales allowed.”

Like it or not, working with sales is a crucial part of product management. In Good Product Manager / Bad Product Manager, Ben Horowitz and David Weiden write:

“Good product managers are loved by the salesforce. A good product manager will be known personally or by reputation by at least half the salesforce. Good product managers know that salespeople have a choice of products to sell and, at a higher level, companies to work for, and selling a particular product manager's product is optional. Good product managers know that if the salesforce doesn't like their product, they will fail.”

Don’t let your product fail because you didn’t get buy-in from sales. Or even worse, don’t let your product fail because you weren’t able to work with sales on a product they actually loved.

Try out Appcues