Hey product, your salespeople know something you don't

by Jo Johansson

On any given day, the sales and product team play by different rules. Little attention is really paid to the separation of the two. It seems only natural.

There go the tech people. New features, roadmaps, and so on.

On the other side of the room, perhaps even on a different floor, there sit the smooth talkers.

Despite their inherent differences and business functions, these two teams have one major thing in common: they both live and die by numbers,  whether it’s leads versus lag or dollars versus downloads.

Sales, meet product. Product, meet sales. Before we look at how these two teams can work together, let’s look at how they function independent of each other.

The sales team: Beyond closing deals

Results, results, results. More so than any other team, the sales team is results-oriented.

Unlike other teams, if certain goals aren’t met, it has a direct impact on their bank accounts and livelihoods. That means they are more dependent on a good product than the product team itself.

Modern sales teams have moved away from closing more deals to closing the right deals. The commercial conversation in 2016 is honest and helpful. That’s why the sales team needs to know exactly what’s going on in product. Sales need to be aligned with the product lifecycle to set accurate expectations for their prospects.

The product team: More than features

The product team is always in the hot seat. They sit in the intersection (and sometimes crossfire) of tech, marketing and business.

The best product managers have a comprehensive understanding of each of these areas and allow for open communication between them all. Ultimately, their job is to apply the appropriate filters and separate vanity from value, delivering a stronger and more sustainable product.

The product team has all the data they need. And sure, this data is indicative of which features are being used. But it comes with restrictions and limitations and doesn’t always paint the full picture.

Yes, analytics will show if and when a certain feature is being used. What analytics data doesn’t show is the intention behind using it or the expectations of that feature. Some users might even be using a feature for completely different reason than it was initially built for.

Worst case scenario, this might guide product development down the wrong path and waste resources, time and money. Best case scenario, a better product will be built.

How listening to user feedback led to a unicorn

Take Instagram, for example. What eventually turned into the world’s most popular photo-sharing app started out as something completely different. In its early days, the founders built a check-in service called Burbn.

In one pivotal meeting, Kevin Systrom and his team decided to switch their focus from check-ins to photo sharing. Having paid close attention to user feedback, they threw out one year’s worth of work and put all their efforts into the part of the product the users were committed to—photos. Eight weeks later, Instagram was born.

How much is paying attention to user feedback worth? In Instagram’s case, 1 billion dollars.

Working together: Go from confrontation to collaboration

Understanding what should be built and when is the core responsibility of the product team. However, answering the question, “Who is this product being built for?” is a company-wide responsibility that each member of the company can contribute to.  

This is where sales come in. On a daily basis, salespeople receive countless rejections from prospects. They sit at the forefront of feedback.

With qualitative data from live chats, product demos, calls and in-person meetings, sales can provide product with an important perspective. Product might have raw data, but sales have raw feedback straight from prospects.

Sales: Always question, never overpromise

The conversation you have with prospects should be a healthy balance between what the product looks like today and what the vision is for the future.

Taking the visionary aspect too far will put unnecessary pressure on the product team, and it might also reflect poorly on the sales team as those promised features might not be implemented after all.

What should you do instead?

Ask questions. Figure out the real need behind the feature request and whether it's a dealbreaker or can be solved with a workaround.

Product: Break the bubble, get out of your comfort zone

It’s convenient for product teams to stay in their comfort zones. It might be fear of failure, but it might just be lack of insight.

With sales directly sharing customer feedback with the product team, you can make sure that you keep moving, always striving to serve your market better, faster. Sales teams bring customer-generated ideas, product teams validate those ideas.

Think market, not customer

A salesperson might have the same conversation with a dozen prospects within the span of a week. They’re all asking for the same feature and without this feature, the deal is off the table. Anyone can understand the rep's frustration, especially if they’re hearing the same objection over and over again.

This is when a lot of salespeople run over to product and say, “We need this feature—NOW.” Helpful? Not at all.

When salespeople request certain product features, the product manager should explain, “No, we’re not going to build this feature, and I’m gonna tell you why.” Saying “no” is part of building a well-defined product.

If there’s friction between product and sales teams, there’s a very simple solution to get them both on the same page. Forget about features, funnels and follow-ups.

Instead, step back and look at the big picture: the overall business objectives. At the end of the day, that is what everyone should be working toward, regardless of opinions, beliefs and team shirt.

Your office could be a gold mine full of insight

Look around you. No matter what kind of product you’re building, chances are “real users” are in the same office.

In the early days of Close.io, we were sitting right next to our target audience: our own salespeople. At an early stage startup, it’s easy to start working on the wrong problems. At Close.io, we had the opportunity to code our product while our core users were actually using it.  

Our sales team used Close.io to manage the entire sales process from start to finish. This meant we could identify pain points and tackle issues very fast through our own in-house feedback loop.

Having access to our core users on a daily basis provided us with incredible insights. It helped us simplify workflows and evaluate the product much faster than if we hadn’t shared the same space.

As our very own Phil Freo pointed out, “Startups often build software based on limited understanding of problems, or in the best cases based on their own past experiences, but they still remain disconnected from real users during most of the development process.”

Harness the feedback, stay connected to your users.

The feedback funnel: All it takes is one email

Most people sigh when they hear the word “process.” The word has a bad reputation and is often associated with bottlenecks, frustrations and delays.

However, a process doesn’t have to mean spreadsheets, database entries and multiple sign-offs. A process can simply be a conversation. Replace “process” with “communication” and instantly, we’re on friendlier terms.

Here’s what you can do:

  • Start the conversation: How do the teams normally function? How do they normally communicate? What does each team’s routines look like? Figure out how to integrate sales-to-product feedback into the existing team culture in a way that doesn't disrupt current workflow. In plain English: Get to know each other.
  • Establish rules: You’ve opened the lines of communication.  Now it’s time to make sure those lines stay uncluttered. Setting boundaries will allow for more effective communication. A good first rule is establishing and sticking to common terminology that everyone should use to make sure everyone is communicating clearly.
  • Keep it simple, but consistent: Whether it’s a weekly or monthly email, daily huddle or meeting—make sure it happens. No excuses.
  • Trial and error: Depending on the size of the teams and the existing structure, it will take some time to figure out the new dynamic. Be flexible. Be patient.

It’s all about involving the right people, in the right way, at the right time. And guess what? If nothing else, one email is all it takes.

Sales and product, better together

Every team within a company has a unique function. Despite this, they’re all dependent on each other. Collaboratively, they can work toward long-term business goals and achieve better results. This is old news.

How they can do this is the tricky bit. While each company has its own setup, there are a few ground rules which will pave the way toward success. Let’s recap:

  • Establish a process that works for both teams
  • Set clear boundaries
  • Stay mindful—you both have the same end game
  • Keep educating each other as product and strategies change and evolve

Remember, what works right now is not going to work forever. As the product goes through its lifecycle, the relationship between the sales and product teams needs to develop and evolve with the business.

There’s always more to learn, and new and better ways of working together will emerge. As long as both teams support each other, and understand and respect each other’s purpose, you will achieve better results and better numbers, together.

Recommended reading:

MVP your team to excellence
Don’t think of MVP as just a product development methodology. MVP is also a way to create a more effective & collaborative startup team—here's how.

Conflict resolution 101 for startups
How to resolve conflicts between people in high pressure, high growth startups. This is your step by step guide to conflict resolution!

Coworkers as your first customers: Your office as the ultimate development environment
Startups often don’t talk to real users during the dev process. However, if you build your product as users test it, you'll build a great product.