It always feels the same. You can tell by the tone in her voice. The VP of Sales is angry, very angry. That is because the latest release did not have the random feature that her sales manager in New York needed to close the deal that was needed at the last second to save the quarter. You are the product manager, and you are to blame.
She is angry, and it is all your fault.
But you really cannot blame her for being upset. You know that she lives and dies by numbers, real numbers that everyone knows were either achieved or not. She gets paid well when she achieves those numbers and fired if she misses them one too many times.
Sales is her livelihood, and you are threatening that. You are in a sticky situation.
After all, there was a very good reason the latest release did not include the feature the sales manager wanted. You managed to bring a great release to market, but you had to make some difficult decisions. In the end, that one feature did not make it, but tons of others that lots of your existing customers and other prospects wanted did.
What you have now is what looks like failure — but you know that it is best for the business.
So, how do you work with a tough sales leader or a feisty sales organization? The reality is that all of the good ones are, because they need to be to move the business forward. So, it’s important to learn early how to work best with them, even when you know that you cannot always please them.
Here is how successful product managers work with demanding sales teams and build strong relationships along the way:
Try to sell the product yourself
You should know this product better than anyone. Offer to get in front of customers yourself and see if you can sell the product or help the sales team close the deal. There is nothing more powerful than meeting with customers and trying to help the team get to their quota. And most likely, you will better understand where customers want to see your product roadmap go.
Explain the essence of the product’s value
Most products really only do one or two things tremendously well. Those advantages are what motivate customers to pay for them. At their best, they solve a thorny problem that customers are willing to exchange money for to make go away. Figure out what truly differentiates your product and train the sales team on that first.
Align marketing with sales
Once you explain what your product does well and how it creates customer value, ensure that the marketing messages align with what the product does and what sales is trying to sell. Communicating with the sales and marketing teams will help everyone pull together and hear the same message.
Your job is to build a product to serve a market — not a single customer. It is critical to start with a “goal first” approach, making sure that everyone knows where the product is headed and why. If you do this, you have a chance to avoid the disappointment that may come when that “one-off” feature is not shipped. Assuming you do, you then have the strategy and responsibility to say “NO” when future requests are not aligned with how you are going to win in market.
The product manager role can be tough, especially when you have to make difficult decisions that you know will not make everyone happy — especially sales leaders.
But at the end of the day, you and the VP of Sales are both trying to achieve the same thing. You are trying to bring a successful product to market and create value for both your customers and the business.
If you understand sales and the pressure they are under, that will motivate you to truly focus on building a product that they can sell and that you can all be proud of.
How do you keep your sales leader off the warpath?