21 January 2015
Although I’m in product management, I recently spent six weeks as a sales person on our sales team. If you’re a product manager, or maybe even a designer or a developer, I recommend you try to sell your product too! The experience will help you learn important things about your customers, and their needs, than you won’t get from interviews or get-to-know-you conversations.
Here’s what I learned:
You don’t know what you don’t know
My new favorite saying is “you don’t know what you don’t know”. And that’s really what it’s like being a product person selling your product for the first time. It doesn’t matter how good your relationships are with your sales team, who’s on your sales team, or whether you sit in on sales calls all the time: until the day you do it yourself, you don’t know what it means to actually sell the product. You make assumptions. You add your own narrative. You project. You get things wrong.
You don’t know your business until you understand the “whole process”
If you don’t know a salesperson’s experiences first-hand, you probably don’t know your buyers’ experiences either. Selling your product will bring you closer to the sales process than ever before; and by being closer to your sales process, you’ll understand your customers better, too.
You’ll get info you’d never get by asking politely
I bet your sales team talks to more of your customers and potential customers than anyone else on your team. If you’re trying to understand why people buy your product (or, more importantly, why not), stop asking and try selling for a while. You’ll no longer need to send polite product manager emails asking “Why did you sign up for X?” because you’ll probably already know.
You learn a ton about your competitors
When customers talk to product managers they don’t want to talk about competitors because they think it’s rude. They’ll say “Oh, we use some other tool” or “We’re used to other things”. When buyers talk to salespeople they want to talk about competitors because they want to negotiate. Salespeople will hear things like: “Competitor X offered me this pricing”, “Competitor Y has this feature, do you have it?”, “We heard from the team at competitor Z that your tool doesn’t do this”.
Or perhaps sales will hear customer complaints about competitors that you could solve. Things like: “Competitor A has great XY features, but their downtime sucks.” Or: "We just found the competitor too expensive”, “We need something that allows us to do X as well as Y.”
You need to know WHY you’re better
We’re product people so we all know the importance of differentiation and value proposition. And any decent product managers will think they understand why their product is better than the competition’s. But as a sales rep, you get a real reality check with regards to why you are better because you live and breathe that conversation every day.
We’ve all heard the “think of your customer, not your competitor” mantra, and I still believe it, but you need to get pretty good, pretty quickly at articulating your value proposition vs those of competitor X, Y and Z. You quickly learn what works and what doesn’t. Seriously. While working in sales, I have heard more people say “Tell me why your product is better than X’s” than I ever had before.
Sales isn’t just about getting the deal
I’ll be honest with you: I didn’t sell anything when I was a sales person. Most of what I did was helping, supporting and guiding our users through the early steps of our product. If you want to know more about how to improve your onboarding experience, talk to your sales team. They probably know.
That said, do not equate sales with customer development. Don’t expect that just because your sales team is talking to customers, they are also doing customer development. Unlike a customer development interview where you have learning goals and expect the customer to tell you a lot, in a sales call your goals will be to engage the customer but towards selling them your product. You may very well learn their business inside and out in the process of selling, as well as develop a relationship. But it will be as a salesperson rather than a product manager, and accordingly, the approach will be results-based rather than knowledge-based.
You’re not just building a product for your customers. You’re building a business
Too often internal users of your software are neglected. Ever had your sales or support team ask for features for themselves that you’ve de-prioritized due to customer needs? Think again about what that means for your business’s efficiency and knowledge. Once you start to sell, you might realise why your team asked for the data to be in sync across systems, or why they needed certain information from customers during the trial process. This is information that can be invaluable as a product manager.
After working in sales, I think it’s fair to say you will never experience product management in exactly the same way you did before, and that is a good thing. Working in sales will improve your communication skills (including listening), and will give you a new appreciation for the hard and varied work salespeople do on a day-to-day basis. It will also refresh your connection with your customers and their needs. Please note, I’m talking about needs here, not necessarily what they think they want. Working in sales, even just for a few weeks, can help product managers better understand those needs, and how their product can beat the competition at meeting them. Why don’t you try it and see what you learn?