You hear a buzz of excitement coming from the direction of the sales team, and you can see by the smiles that there has been a big win. They catch your eye and gesture for you to come over as, after all, it was your product that they have sold. A moment of pride as you realize that all the hard work has been worthwhile; the research, the planning and those late nights really made a difference. A smile crosses your face as you are welcomed into the circle, and as handshakes are exchanged you ask that fateful question; 'So what did you sell?' For many product managers this can be the tumbleweed moment when an icy chill goes down your back, and a set of worried faces look at you as you say 'What do you mean you’ve sold it in Australia? We’re not allowed to sell that product there!'
A senior executive that I used to work with liked to refer to 'positive tensions' between the product and the sales teams. In his mind, this was the natural friction that develops between those who are facing off to a demanding client, wanting to strike a hard bargain, and those who are trying to create an attractive product which the company can support operationally, whilst remaining suitably profitable. However, it is very easy for this to descend from the positive, and just become a tension that leads to the old sales adage, 'We won that one because I’m a great salesman, but we lost that other one because the product is rubbish'. The key to running a successful business is to ensure that the tension, respect and communication between sales and product is kept at the right levels, which won’t happen without some effort on the part of the management team.
Communication is key, as is being realistic about what a sales team is going to know about your products. You are the product manager, and they are never going to know as much about your product as you do, so it is vital to ensure that they have just enough to allow them to do their jobs, without drowning them in excess information. Current best practice is to achieve this through linking your product management tools with either the sales team’s CRM system, or with another suitable area (such as the corporate intranet) where you can publish product information to the commercial teams.
Having this in place allows the product team to share all the latest product information; the key product traits, competitive differences, market coverage, pricing bands and marketing documentation. All the information is in one place, can easily be kept up to date and is under the control of the product manager, but is also fully accessible by the sales team which makes everyone’s lives easier. Models where the sales team has full access to a product management system can easily lead to confusion regarding which elements are currently available for sale, and have also been known to result in product margins being confused with sales margins, which can lead to very difficult post sale conversations!
The other communication element that is vital to track is the ongoing interaction between the sales and product teams. Both sides must remember that this is a two way street, so it is as critical for the sales guys to listen to the updates of the product teams, as it is for the product managers to take note of client feedback via the frontline commercial folks. In the past it has been very difficult to track how well this information exchange has progressed, which easily leads to hearsay in senior management meetings along the lines of 'well those product guys never spend any time updating our commercial teams in Milan, so what do you expect...?'
Today’s leading product management systems can cater to these demands in two ways. Firstly, they can record exactly what presentations were made to the commercial teams, who was there, what information was shared, perhaps store a copy of the deck used, and even note down the duration of the session. Effective MIS reporting linked to this then allows each management team to see exactly what level of effort the product managers are making to keep the commercial teams updated, whether this matches any corporate expectations that have been put in place, and quickly highlights any regions who might not be getting their fair share of focus.
The second way is how those same systems take in information fed back by the sales teams regarding their clients’ views, market appetite, or competitive developments. Again, the best of breed product management systems can take this information, record where it came from, and allocate it to be dealt with immediately or at a later date depending on the impact to your product’s strategy. The commercial teams need to be confident that their valuable input is being recorded and acted upon, rather than ignored or considered unimportant, so providing them with feedback around your subsequent actions is vital.
Effective teams work together, not against each other, and so it is essential that strong relationships are in place. As ever, this is usually achieved through having an open and honest communication flow, which helps sales and product people understand each other’s challenges. In the hustle and bustle of a modern working environment, technology has a key role to play in this process, which successful firms have been quick to recognize.